There’s an Epidemic That’s a Bigger Threat Than the Coronavirus

And we’re largely ignoring it

Dr. David L. Katz
Heated
Published in
9 min readFeb 28, 2020

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Photo: ArtistGNDphotography/E+/Getty Images

You are, probably, worrying about coronavirus. For most of us, the anxious questions are: Am I going to get the coronavirus? Is someone I love going to get it? If we do, is it going to kill us?

For starters, let’s be clear that no one ever gets a health guarantee. You might still have a heart attack even if you do everything advisable to avoid one. If you eat optimally, exercise, don’t smoke, and so on- you make heart disease or cancer vastly less probable, but you don’t get a guarantee. Human health simply does not come with those. And, of course, you can do everything right to be fit and healthy and keep your coronaries pristine, reliably avoid heart disease, and still get hit by a bus, or a falling tree, or lightning. Or get a brain tumor, for reasons we don’t know.

One thing you learn in medicine is that we control ship and sail, but never wind and wave. We don’t control everything, ever. Bad things happen to good people doing everything right all the time. But they do happen much less often to those doing everything right than to everyone else, so what we do matters enormously. It shifts probability.

So, the questions about coronavirus revert to questions about probability. And those we can answer, or at least establish the basis for answers.

The ultimate questions — will I get this disease, and will it kill me if I do? — can be broken into component parts.

What is my risk of exposure?

Right now, unless you are in one of the rarefied populations around the world where the disease is concentrated, the answer is: probably very, very, very low. There are, as I write this (2/28/20) just under 84,000 global cases out of a population of nearly 8 billion humans. That is one case per 100,000. For comparison, the lifetime risk of being struck by lightning in the United States is roughly one in 3,000. The coronavirus numbers could change, of course, and likely will, but for now- total cases are of a “one in many, many thousands” magnitude, making exposure for any one of us highly improbable.

Being exposed is necessary, but not sufficient, to get infected.

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Dr. David L. Katz
Heated

President, True Health Initiative; CEO, Diet ID; Founder, Former Director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. @DrDavidKatz

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