Are more people dying from the flu this year compared to other seasons? Here's what to know.

By Claire Gillespie
February 11, 2020

While everyone is in a panic about the coronavirus (officially renamed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization), there's an even deadlier virus many people are forgetting about: the flu.

Flu season is hitting its stride right now in the US. So far, the CDC has estimated (based on weekly influenza surveillance data) that at least 12,000 people have died from influenza between Oct. 1, 2019 through Feb. 1, 2020, and the number of deaths may be as high as 30,000. 

The CDC also estimates that up to 31 million Americans have caught the flu this season, with 210,000 to 370,000 flu sufferers hospitalized because of the virus. 

RELATED: Why Do Some People Die From the Flu? 

The official toll of the 2019-2020 flu season won't be known for months. The season itself could last until May, and only preliminary estimates will be available until data is finalized. 

“The current flu season has been difficult but it has not reached epidemic threshold,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, tells Health. “In the next couple of weeks, when more data is available, it will become clear just how severe the season was given that we had an initial dominance of influenza B and now dominance of influenza A H1N1.”

When a second strain begins to dominate the flu season, this can cause the season to last longer, explains Dr. Adalja. 

RELATED: Influenza B Is Dominating This Year's Flu Season. Here's What You Need to Know

So how do these numbers compare to flu deaths in previous years? So far, it looks like the 2019-2020 death toll won’t be as high as it was in the 2017-2018 season, when 61,000 deaths were linked to the virus. However, it could equal or surpass the 2018-2019 season's 34,200 flu-related deaths. 

Overall, the CDC estimates that 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually since 2010 can be blamed on the flu. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the flu kills 290,000 to 650,000 people per year. 

The annual death rate depends on the specific strain of the virus that is dominant, how well the vaccine is working to protect against that strain, and how many people got vaccinated, says Dr. Adalja. The flu is harder to fight off for specific populations, such as infants and young children, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised due to chronic illnesses such as HIV or cancer.

In recent weeks, however, the spotlight has been firmly on the new coronavirus, which the WHO officially named COVID-19 on February 11. The concern is justified, as more than 1,000 people in mainland China have died from the virus—a larger number than those who died from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.  To date, there are 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US. 

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That doesn’t mean Americans don’t need to worry about the flu. In their guide to preventing coronavirus, the CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine and taking everyday preventive steps to help stop the spread of germs (such as avoiding close contact with people who are sick, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, washing your hands often, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school—especially when someone is ill). It’s also important to take flu antivirals if they’re prescribed to you. 

The fact that people are more concerned about COVID-19 than the flu virus is no surprise, says Dr. Adalja. “Anytime there is a new emerging infectious disease that is shrouded in mystery with a lot of unknowns, it captivates people in a way that a regular virus that people deal with on a yearly basis won’t,” he says. 

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