In good years, flu kills Americans in the low tens of thousands and sickens many times more. Yet even in the time of Covid, flu, the other respiratory killer caused by a virus, is underestimated. Almost half of American adults don’t bother to get vaccinated against it. Despite the ongoing Covid experience, researchers and historians don’t expect Americans’ attitudes toward flu to change much.
“Statistics on flu have been given to the public,” said Dr. David Morens, a flu researcher and senior adviser to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “And they just don’t care.”
Some researchers and historians are examining attitudes toward flu for clues about how Americans will deal with Covid in the years to come. Will Covid, like flu, be a serious infectious disease that the public shrugs off even as it continues to cause large numbers of deaths each year?
Public attitudes toward flu, historians and public health experts say, are revelatory — and illustrate the paradoxical thinking about risks and diseases.
“I think, for the public, ‘flu’ means minor illness,” said Dr. Arnold Monto, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan. But in bad flu years, hospitals are filled, and elective surgeries are postponed. “People forget that,” he said.
In 1918 a new influenza strain caused a pandemic with a frightening mortality rate. Yet when that pandemic ended, said Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound, complacency resumed. People wanted to put that awful period behind them.