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Doctor's stark coronavirus warning about 'big mistake' everyone keeps making

It’s a dismissive comment uttered, sometimes without much thought, among circles of friends or on social media.

But as the coronavirus reaches a critical point outside of China, simply passing off coronavirus as a ‘flu-like’ outbreak is a naive move, doctors and virologists have warned.

In Italy in particular, where the country’s health system has been stretched to its limit with an outbreak of more than 10,000 cases, the impact of the virus is not to be underestimated.

In a now-viral tweet, one woman in northern Italy warned the country had made a “big mistake” in the lead-up to the outbreak in the European epicentre which has sent its death toll soaring beyond 600.

“Please, please guys. Here in northern Italy we made one big mistake. Everybody kept saying: ‘It’s just flu’ and now our intensive care units are collapsing,” 23-year-old Bianca, from Lombardy, tweeted.

“Everybody kept going outside like nothing happened and now our grandparents and parents are dying.

“Coronavirus is not flu.”

And in a lengthy post on Facebook which has since been shared 32,000 times, Dr Daniele Macchini who is on the frontline of the coronavirus fight in the Italian city of Bergamo, revealed the devastating effect the virus is having on the health system.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 11: Hospital nursing staff assist people lining up for COVID-19 screening outside the Royal melbourne Hospital  on March 11, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)
Hospital nursing staff assist people lining up for COVID-19 screening outside the Royal Melbourne Hospital on Wednesday. Source: Getty
NAPLES, CAMPANIA, ITALY - 2020/03/04: Nurses carry a Coronavirus COVID-19 patient with a high bio-containment stretcher, to take him to the hospital ward where he will be treated. (Photo by Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Nurses carry a Coronavirus COVID-19 patient with a high bio-containment stretcher in Italy. Source: Getty

“The war has literally exploded and battles are uninterrupted day and night,” he said.

“The need for beds has arrived in all its drama. One after the other the departments that had been emptied fill up at an impressive pace.”

He saids the virus must not be likened to the flu.

“Explain to me which flu virus causes such a rapid drama. And while there are still people who boast of not being afraid by ignoring directions, protesting because their normal routine is ‘temporarily’ put in crisis, the epidemiological disaster is taking place,” he said.

Do not underestimate coronavirus, Australian expert warns

As the virus continues to spread in Australia, Professor Ian Mackay, virologist and associate professor at the University of Queensland, has warned the virus must not be underestimated.

“It’s definitely worse than the flu and the worst case scenario (it’s) not that far off the Spanish flu,” he told Yahoo News Australia earlier this month.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on Wednesday, he said many people he comes across daily refer to coronavirus as “just another flu” without seeing it as a “big risk”.

“It’s hard to stress how bad this could be if we don’t take it seriously.”

He noted how “advanced” medical teams in countries where the outbreak has soared have been forced to make the decision on whether patients live or die due to a lack of beds or staff to cope with “the sheer overwhelming number of sick people.”

Italy's health system has been pushed to its limit as a result of the outbreak. Source: Reuters
Italy's health system has been pushed to its limit as a result of the outbreak. Source: Reuters

“We’re seeing the virus spread and cause a lot of severe disease and while it’s not death, it’s still severe disease and it’s tying up a lot of healthcare resources. That’s not what we see every year from flu,” he said.

In recent days Italian media has broadcast footage of ICU units overflowing with patients, with the current situation labelled by Professor Mackay as a “cautionary tale”.

Weeks before, the plight of medical teams in Hubei, the original epicentre of the virus, was widely documented as staff worked day and night in their fight against the outbreak.

Experts in Australia have previously warned the health system would struggle to handle a substantial outbreak, with a lack of medical staff trained in infectious diseases and a limit on hospital beds, as identified by Professor Mackay, that can be provided.

He noted “even if it were just another flu” it is adding unnecessary strain on an “already taxed” health system.

“For Australia, we’re heading into flu season and we’re looking at having another whole round that’s even more serious than the flu so we do need to take this seriously,” he said.

‘This virus is not influenza’

Last week, the World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus specifically warned the coronavirus outbreak shouldn’t be compared to the flu.

“This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics,” he said.

Tedros reiterated that COVID-19 causes more severe disease than seasonal influenza.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), gives a statement to the media about the response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.  The disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has been officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO). (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reiterated the effects of coronavirus are more severe than the flu. Source: AP

“While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity,” he said.

“That means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease.”

He noted the current global mortality rate sits at 3.4 per cent while seasonal flus sit at less than one per cent.

Tedros praised the work of countries working to contain the virus, such as Australia where a cluster of cases has occurred in Sydney’s northwest.

“We don’t even talk about containment for seasonal flu – it’s just not possible. But it is possible for COVID-19,” he said.

“It will prevent infections and save lives. Containment is possible.”

In a report on coronavirus issued by WHO in February, treating the virus as the flu will only cause further deaths.

“Building scenarios and strategies only on the basis of well-known pathogens risks failing to exploit all possible measures to slow transmission of the COVID-19 virus, reduce disease and save lives,” the report said.

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