Coronavirus VS. other deadly viruses: a comparison at the threshold of one million deaths

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A look at the lethality of Sars-Cov-2 with respect to the Spanish flu, Ebola, HIV or dengue itself, among others.

The number of victims of the new coronavirus pandemic is about to exceed a million dead, many more than those caused by other recent viruses, but far less than the terrible “Spanish flu” of a century ago.

The count, which only includes officially recorded deaths, is provisional since the pandemic continues. But it is a benchmark to compare its ravages with those of other viruses, both current and past.

The death toll from Sars-Cov-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) beats that of the virus epidemics that appeared in the 21st century.

In 2009, the epidemic of flu a (H1N1), called “swine”, was a pandemic alert. It officially caused 18,500 deaths. This balance was revised upwards by the medical journal The Lancet, what estimates between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths.

The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic was caused by a virus that appeared in China. It was the first coronavirus to trigger global panic, but in total caused 774 deaths in 2002-2003.

Coronaviruses are a broad family of viruses that can cause illness.

The COVID-19 balance is often compared to seasonal flu. “Globally, these annual epidemics are responsible for some 5 million severe cases and between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths“, states the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the 20th century, two great flu pandemics Caused by new (non-seasonal) viruses, the 1957-58 known as the Asian flu and the 1968-70 called the Hong Kong flu, each caused approximately one million deaths, according to retrospective counts, although they appear to have fallen in oblivion.

But they took place in a context very different from today. Globalization has caused intense economic relations and people (and therefore viruses) circulate more and much faster.

If we go back further into the 20th century, the great flu of 1918-1919, known as the “Spanish” flu (also caused by a new virus) was a hecatomb: in three “waves” it caused a estimated total of 50 million deaths, according to data published in the early 2000s.

The death toll from the new coronavirus is already much higher than that of the fearsome Ebola, whose appearance dates back to 1976.

The latest outbreak of the “virus disease Ebola “ killed almost 2,300 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between August 2018 and the end of June 2020. If we add up all the Ebola epidemics for more than 40 years, the virus caused about 15,000 deaths, all of them in Africa .

And that Ebola has a much higher mortality rate than that of the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus: around 50% of the sick die and in some epidemics it rises to 90%, according to the WHO. But this virus is less contagious than other viral diseases: transmitted by direct contact and not through the air.

Other tropical viruses like dengue or “tropical flu”, whose more severe variant can cause death, also have lower balances. This mosquito-borne infection has been progressing for 20 years and causes thousands of deaths annually (4,032 in 2015).

Another killer virus HIV-AIDS, for which there is no effective vaccine decades after its appearance, caused many deaths between the years 1980 and 2000.

Thanks to the widespread use of antiretroviral therapies, the annual toll of people dying of AIDS has decreased since the 2004 peak (1.7 million). In 2019 there were 690,000 deaths, according to UNAIDS.


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