These are Paul Offit’s comments posted on his Facebook page earlier this week: an acknowledgment that vaccines are dangerous. Whatever happened to ten thousand vaccines are safe for an infant?
Which will do more harm, the virus or the fear of the virus?
Why are we so scared of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19? People are usually scared of viruses for three reasons:
One: the virus causes gruesome, disfiguring, permanent symptoms. Smallpox, for example, not only caused life-long facial scarring, it also was a frequent cause of blindness in those who survived.
Two: the virus has a predilection for children. Polio paralyzed tens of thousands of young children every year until a vaccine finally eliminated the disease from the United States.
Three: the virus is likely to kill you. Rabies kills virtually 100 percent of people who develop symptoms after a bite from a rabid animal.
The novel coronavirus currently circulating in the United States—the one that has caused us to shut down schools, restaurants, sporting events, and virtually every aspect of our culture—falls into none of these categories. Nonetheless, people are scared. Really scared. The reason is they think that if they catch COVID-19, they have a high likelihood of dying from the disease. Most public health officials have done little to lessen this fear, arguing that people are ten times more likely to die from this novel coronavirus than from influenza. Unfortunately, these officials haven’t made clear the difference between relative risk and absolute risk. Although people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than from influenza, they are far more likely to catch influenza. Therefore, they are far more likely to die from influenza.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of March 7, 2020, 36 million to 51 million people have suffered from influenza, 370,000 to 670,000 have been hospitalized, and 22,000 to 55,000 have died from the disease. To put these numbers in perspective, let’s look at countries that have dealt with COVID-19.
China, where COVID-19 originated, has reported roughly 3,000 deaths. The population of China is about 1.4 billion, three times greater than ours. If we suffer an equivalent proportion of deaths, then 1,000 Americans will die from COVID-19, one-twentieth to one-fiftieth of the number who have died from influenza.
Italy has reported roughly 2,000 deaths from COVID-19 and, as a result, has shut down the country; only grocery stores and pharmacies remain open. Italy has a population of 60 million, about one-fifth of the U.S. population. If we suffer an equivalent proportion of deaths, then 10,000 Americans will die of COVID-19, about one-half to one-fifth of the number of deaths from influenza.
Not everyone, however, is at equal risk of dying. The virus primarily kills the elderly and those suffering from chronic diseases, which explains the situation in Italy, where 25 percent of its population is more than 65 years of age; in the U.S. it’s 16 percent. Wouldn’t it make more sense, then, to ask people who are elderly and infirm to stay away from crowds, thus lessening their chances of contracting the disease. Also, to ask people who are sick with respiratory symptoms to stay home. Focus on common sense things like washing hands several times a day and standing clear of people who are coughing or sneezing. The federal government can also help by making it easier for businesses to allow people who are ill to stay home.
In 2009-2010, the world suffered an influenza pandemic caused by swine flu; about 203,000 people were killed by the virus; 12,000 in the United States. The novel coronavirus has killed about 6,000 people to date; 62 in the United States. It doesn’t make sense to shut down our entire way of life to try and stop a virus that is unlikely to harm healthy people and will be far less devastating than the influenza epidemics that we experience every winter and the influenza pandemic we experienced ten years ago. Let’s take common sense measures to stop the spread. The precautionary principle dictates caution to prevent harm. But the precautionary principle also dictates that you don’t cause harm in the name of preventing harm. It will take years to recover from the draconian measures that we are currently instituting.