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Worried About Catching The New Coronavirus? In The U.S., Flu Is A Bigger Threat

Making sure to frequently give your hands a thorough scrub — with soap and for about as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song a couple of times — can significantly cut your chances of catching the flu or other respiratory virus.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Making sure to frequently give your hands a thorough scrub — with soap and for about as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song a couple of times — can significantly cut your chances of catching the flu or other respiratory virus.

If you live in the U.S., your risk of contracting the new strain of coronavirus identified in China is exceedingly low.

So far, the only people infected in the U.S. have been those who have traveled to the region in China where the virus first turned up in humans. And though that could change, one thing is for certain: Another severe respiratory virus that threatens lives — the influenza or flu virus — is very active in the U.S. right now.

Already this flu season (which generally begins in the U.S. in October and peaks during winter months), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 15 million people in the U.S. have gotten sick with flu. More than 150,000 Americans have been hospitalized, and more than 8,000 people have died from their infection. And, this isn't even a particularly bad flu year.

"Last year, we had 34,000 deaths from flu," says epidemiologist Brandon Brownof the University of California, Riverside. On average, the flu is responsible for somewhere between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year. "And this is just in the United States," Brown says.

A flu shot is your best way to protect yourself against getting the flu, and it's still not too late to be vaccinated this season.

There's another very effective strategy for fending off the flu virus — one that could also help protect against the novel coronavirus if it were to spread within the U.S, Brown says.

His top tip is remarkably simple, effective — and familiar. Ready for this? Wash your hands. You need to lather up and wash for at least 20 seconds to make this work, according to the CDC'stips for proper hand-washing. The time it takes to hum the song "Happy Birthday' twice is about right duration.

"Our hands are one of the main ways we can transmit a virus," Brown says. As a reality check, begin to notice everything you touch in a day. "We shake other people's hands, we touch surfaces, open doors," he says.

In addition to inhaling airborne particles from a neighbor's cough or sneeze, touching your hand to a contaminated surface and then to your eyes, nose or mouth is how the virus most often gets inside you.

There's still a lot to learn about the new coronavirus, but respiratory illnesses in general — whether the flu, a cold or a virus that humans haven't encountered before — can spread via little respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs.

That's why we teach our kids to cover their coughs and to sneeze into an elbow. Each of us can help prevent the spread of viruses, and good hygiene habits are key.

Another important reminder: The CDC recommends a pneumococcal vaccine for children under 2, for adults who are 65 or older, for people who smoke and for those who have certain medical conditions.

It's not that this vaccine will directly fight the pneumonia caused by influenza or the new coronavirus; the pneumococcal vaccine actually revs the body's defenses against a different microbe — the common bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia – that also causes pneumonia.

However, one of the main reasons some people get very sick from flu is that, once infected and weakened by the influenza virus, they are extra vulnerable to getting a secondary infection from bacteria — and often, it's the pneumococcal bacteria.

For an historical perspective: It was actually bacterial pneumonia that caused the most deaths during the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to the National Institutes of Health.

By fending off those bacteria, the pneumococcal vaccine can be an important part of a flu defense — and might also help in fending off the new coronavirus strain.

"We don't know whether this new coronavirus tends to predispose people toward pneumococcal infection, but many respiratory viruses do," explains Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"It [would be] better to be infected with only coronavirus, rather than the coronavirus and a bacterium at the same time," Lipsitch says.

The science of why that's true is complicated, Lipsitch says, but in general, when we get a virus, "the immune system is distracted." It focuses on fighting the virus, and that makes it harder to fend off a bacterial infection. "It's hard [for the immune system] to do both at once."

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.