BUSINESS
10/09/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

A Deadly Virus Is Sweeping America. No, Not That One

A deadly virus is poised to sweep across America and could claim thousands of lives this year. It's especially dangerous for the most vulnerable members of society, and preventing an epidemic will require a coordinated, nationwide effort between the government and the private sector.

No, it's not Ebola, the gruesome viral infection that has killed almost 4,000 Africans in its latest outbreak, the largest in history. It's influenza, otherwise known as the flu. The ailment may seem commonplace, but it costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars when it resurfaces each year.

The very fact that flu season is so routine might seem like a reason to shrug it off. Mild cases bring about symptoms that are similar to colds or other minor ailments, making it seem like less of a big deal.

But that kind of thinking could be dangerous, especially if you or someone in your home is susceptible to the worst effects of the virus. Such people include little kids, senior citizens, pregnant women and people with health conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

At its worst, influenza can be catastrophic. The Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 and 1919 sickened as much as 40 percent of the world's population and claimed 50 million lives, including 575,000 Americans. The flu is not usually that bad, but its effects vary widely. From 1976 to 2007, between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans per year died from flu-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of course, even in years when influenza reaches epidemic or worldwide pandemic proportions, the virus pales in comparison to other leading causes of death, such as heart disease, which kills nearly 600,000 Americans annually, according to the CDC. "Influenza and pneumonia" was listed as the eighth-leading cause of death in 2010, killing almost 54,000 people that year, the agency reported.

For more perspective amid widespread U.S. jitters about Ebola, compare the flu to that virus. The total number of patients diagnosed and killed by Ebola in the United States since the disease was identified nearly 40 years ago: one.

And yet more than one in five Americans say they're afraid they'll catch Ebola, according to a Gallup poll released this week. That's about the same share expressing concern about the "swine flu" strain of influenza, a.k.a. H1N1, a much greater health threat, five years ago. Between April 2009 and April 2010, nearly 61 million Americans contracted the swine flu, and almost 12,500 died from it. Unlike seasonal flu, most of the fatalities from swine flu were adults younger than 65, the CDC estimated.

So if you're one of those Americans quivering in front of the TV's non-stop fear-inducing news coverage of Ebola, maybe your nervous energy should be directed elsewhere.

The worst recent domestic influenza outbreak occurred a decade ago, when the virus was linked to 48,000 deaths during the 2003-2004 flu season, according to the CDC.

During the 2012 and 2013 flu season, 32 million people became ill because of the virus, nearly half of whom needed medical attention and 381,000 of whom were hospitalized, CDC data show. Detailed information isn't available from the agency about the following flu season, or the current one.

The economic costs of the flu are significant, too, totaling more than $87 billion a year, according to a CDC study published in 2007. That includes more than $10 billion in medical costs and more than $16 billion in lost earnings for workers who get sick or die, CDC researchers concluded. Given that medical costs grow faster than the economy does, that tally is likely higher now.

Predicting how mild or severe a flu season will be is tough to do accurately, partly because there are so many strains of the influenza virus. Flu season usually hits its peak some time between December and February.

The good news is that flu typically isn't life-threatening for adults who aren't elderly. But when a new strain of flu emerges, like Spanish flu or swine flu, that is harmful to adults, the death count tends to rise.

The even better news is that getting the flu is extremely preventable through vaccination. Flu vaccines, which change every year based on scientists' assessment of which versions of the flu are most likely to spread, are proven effective, if imperfect.

Vaccines are right now being distributed across the U.S. for patients to get immunized. As of Sept. 26, nearly 88 million doses of influenza vaccine had been shipped around the country, and up to 159 million may be shipped by the end of flu season. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months old and up get the vaccine, unless there are medical reasons they cannot, which can include being allergic to the vaccine.

And yet, despite the risks of flu and the wide availability of vaccine in most years -- not to mention an Obamacare rule making flu immunizations free in most cases -- a huge swath of the population leaves itself vulnerable.

During the 2013-2014 flu season, just 45 percent of Americans got vaccinated, including just over 56 percent of children from six months to 17 years old. Get those numbers up, and the flu becomes a lot less scary.

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