Public health officials say a North American outbreak of the novel coronavirus is inevitable. Every day it seems like new cases are popping up, masks are flying off the shelves and people are preparing for possible quarantines.
The global death toll has pushed past 3,000, with over 90,000 people infected worldwide (and rising). But as many health officials have pointed out, that’s nowhere near how many people are infected and die from seasonal influenza every year — there are an estimated one billion flu cases worldwide every year and the World Health Organization estimates that it kills 290,000 to 650,000 people each year.
So why the panic? And what exactly is the difference between influenza and COVID-19?
How are they the same?
Both COVID-19 and the common flu are viral infections. Both can spread from person to person through droplets — usually from coughing, sneezing or talking.
They also have similar symptoms as they both hit your respiratory system and can cause fever, cough, body aches, fatigue and in some severe cases, pneumonia.
Neither is a bacterial infection, so they can’t be treated with anti-bacterial medication like antibiotics. Instead, health-care providers try to lessen symptoms, such as reducing fever.
How are they different?
Coronavirus broadly refers to a type of virus that’s actually super common around the world. Most coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, most people get infected with one or more of these viruses at some point in their lives.
COVID-19, however, is a novel coronavirus. That means a new strain that wasn’t previously seen in humans. The latest outbreak is attributed to the novel 2019 coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. COVID-19 is its formal name.
The flu, however, is caused by a bunch of different types and strains of influenza viruses. There are two main types of influenza viruses that break out every year — Influenza A and B. The 2009 outbreak of H1N1 was a type of influenza virus.
Coronavirus and influenza virus, while similar in symptoms, are from totally different families of viruses.
Scientists have been studying the flu for years, however, and can work quickly to develop vaccines and treatment in response to mutating strains. We also know that it’s a seasonal thing, and flu outbreaks tend to die down in the spring.
But COVID-19 is new and unknown. We’re still not even 100% sure how it’s spread. Scientists are also speculating that it could travel faster than the flu.
Overall, according to the CDC, the death rate of those who have been infected with the flu this season is 0.05%. As of publication, the World Health Organization states that the fatality rate for COVID-19 is around 3%. (It’s important to note this figure is just of reported cases, though. Many people who have COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and may not know they have the disease, which could make the fatality rate lower or different than what we know.)
The other key difference is vaccines. Health officials have said any vaccine for COVID-19 could be over a year away. But the flu vaccine has been publicly available and working for years now — the first vaccine for consumer use came out in 1945. Every year it’s refined to battle the most recent flu virus to keep you protected, and it’s usually about 40 to 60 per cent effective.
So if you haven’t, yet, let this be a reminder — get your flu shot! It won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it could keep you from getting influenza and being a drain on health care resources when they are needed elsewhere. Also, wash your hands.
This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Canada and has been updated with new language about the most recent COVID-19 figures.