The absolutely outrageous claims by some broadcasters that this coronavirus COVID-19 is just the common flu would be laughed at in Germany, where the average citizen has learned enough about their anatomy and diseases to refer themselves to a specialist when ill.
Citizens in developed Asia and Europe receive three times more science education. Such broadcasters there would soon be out of a job.
An educated citizenry knows to ask specific questions about any emerging disease threat.
How likely is an infected person to die? That is the “case fatality rate.” Sure, far more people die from the common flu than from this emerging virus, so far. But 30,000 deaths out of 40 million infected is a less-than .01 chance of dying. COVID-19 kills between 2 and 3 patients per hundred.
Some cancers may be 100 percent fatal — but not contagious. So the rate of contagion (expected number of new cases likely to be caused by one case in a population where all persons in the population are susceptible) is important.
This factor of contagion is called the basic reproductive number R0. This number also depends on whether other people in the population are immune due to prior exposure or vaccination. So how contagious is COVID-19 compared to other contagious diseases? The average number of new cases that will arise from one infected person (R0) varies for the following agents.
Ebola (outbreak in Congo 2014) ... 1.5–2.5
SARS (outbreak in China 2003) ... 2–5
HIV/AIDS (arose 1980s) ... 2–5
Mumps ... 4–7
Measles ... 12–18
Compared to the above levels of contagion, COVID-19 appears to infect at a rate of 1.4–3.8. But the Influenza epidemic of 1918 that began in Kansas and spread worldwide had a rate of only 2–3 but killed 675,000 in the United States and 50 million worldwide. So, this R0 measure alone does not predict how fast the infection spreads or how fatal it will be.
There are other important questions medical researchers are working on answering.
To what extent are there silent carriers who show no symptoms but who spread the infection? How long is an affected patient infectious? Does the disease agent travel as an airborne virus, in airborne droplets or by other contact? How long can the infectious agent survive in the environment?
The number of casualties that COVID-19 will cause will also depend on many cultural factors, including how willing a population is to “stand in place” to limit the transfer. But it likewise depends on each general citizen’s intelligent understanding of these many factors.
We do not have to know about R0 values, but we need to understand different rates of contagion are important. We don’t have to have a degree in biochemistry, but we need to recognize that measles viruses spread readily but N95 masks can keep out the droplet-borne viruses like COVID-19.
Well-educated civilians in Korea or Germany ask more questions, understand more of the disease they are facing and act to keep fatalities as low as possible. But a brief online article or a short talk with your doctor cannot replace two semesters of schooling in how your body works and how diseases spread. When it comes to science illiteracy, the US can claim the title of being Number One!
Why does the American population have one of the lowest levels of science literacy of developed nations?
Some of the blame lies with our science societies themselves. For decades, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has advocated “less science, not more” despite scientists pointing out that “less science is less science.” The NCLB, Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards have kept science trivial. State Boards of Education water down science requirements by substituting computer courses; learning to code is not going to help anyone in this coming epidemic.
Aside from the brief post-Sputnik panic, America has discounted science as a necessity for students not aiming for a science career. As a result, we will face unnecessary deaths from science illiteracy.
Just ask your doctor if more science education is right for you.