Comparing the COVID-19 Coronavirus to 7 Other Infectious Diseases

We look at some common, and recent, infectious diseases in order to put the COVID-19 coronavirus in perspective.
Chris Young

The outlook on the COVID-19 coronavirus is changing every day. As of this moment, the United States has just declared a national emergency — other countries will soon likely follow.

It's difficult to contextualize rapidly evolving circumstances, but it's also equally necessary to help ourselves and others. This is why a list comparing prevalent diseases of today with the 2019 coronavirus follows.



The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to every corner of the world. The landscape is murky, and while Chinese sources claim the outbreak is slowing down in its eastern origin, some global experts are claiming we should prepare for months of disruptions before the virus is controlled.

As of writing, there are 125,048 cases of coronavirus infections in over 114 countries, and the death toll is now over 5,000 and continuing to rise.

After days and weeks of constant developments, it might feel like the COVID-19 coronavirus is the only thing we hear about. But the very novelty of coronavirus — first diagnosed in November 2019 according to Chinese officials — is why we know relatively little about it, compared to other diseases, and why it's important to follow the latest updates and the advice of local authorities.

Current cases (March 13, 2020): 145,336

Current death toll (same date): 5,416

1. The seasonal flu/Influenza

The infectious disease COVID-19 is perhaps most often compared to the common flu, or influenza, with many people saying the coronavirus is "just the flu." It's not.

Though many of the common symptoms are similar — muscle aches, sore throat, and fever — the reproduction rate for the COVID-19 coronavirus is significantly higher than that of the seasonal flu; experts estimate that each COVID-19 sufferer infects between two to three other people, while the seasonal flu typically infects 1.3 new people for each infected person.

Comparing the COVID-19 Coronavirus to 7 Other Infectious Diseases
Source: urfinguss/iStock

Then there's the death rate. COVID-19 has been shown to be fatal in roughly 3.5% of confirmed cases, as ScienceAlert reports. While we don't have enough data to know the exact mortality rate — many milder cases may have gone undiagnosed — the seasonal flu typically kills only 0.1% of those infected.

Then there's the fact that we don't have a vaccine, as well as the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to overwhelm health systems worldwide, leading to deaths for people with other ailments that would have otherwise been treated.

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Yearly cases: approx. 3 to 5 million

Yearly death toll: approx. 290,000 to 650,000

Source: WHO


As the other most prominent coronavirus in recent times, SARS is also often compared to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

SARS, also known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, was first identified in November 2002 in the Guangdong province of southern China. The SARS coronavirus, which also caused a viral respiratory illness, was eventually contained in July 2003. Before it did so, it spread to 26 countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

Though the global health community has taken on many of the lessons of SARS in the containment and treatment of COVID-19, this year's coronavirus has far outdone the damage caused by SARS. During the outbreak, there were 8,098 reported cases of SARS and 774 deaths. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been no known new cases of SARS since 2004.

Though SARS killed 10% of patients, making it deadlier to sufferers than COVID-19, it infected a fraction of the people over a longer period of time.

Total reported cases: 8,098

Death toll: 774

Source: CDC


Another recent coronavirus, MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, was first reported in Saudi Arabia as recently as 2012. It spread to 27 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America.

Much in the same way that COVID-19 likely originated in bats, and was subsequently passed on to humans by an as yet unknown bridge animal. MERS is thought to have been jumped to humans via camels that originally got the disease from bats.

Since it was first identified, there have been 2,494 reported cases of MERS, and 858 deaths. Infections occurred mainly due to close face-to-face contact between humans.

Though MERS's fatality rate is a very high 34% (much higher than COVID-19), the low transmission when compared to the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan means that the death toll has stayed relatively low.

Total reported cases: 2,494 

Death toll: 858

Source: WHO


Did you know that before the COVID-19 coronavirus isn't the only ongoing pandemic in the world? The HIV/AIDS pandemic began in 1960 and continues to this day. However, as World Atlas points out, the peak of the hysteria surrounding the disease came in the 1980s when the world became widely informed about its existence.

From 1960 to 2020, the virus has caused over 39 million deaths. Treatment first became available for people with HIV/AIDS in 1987 and just last week the second person ever to be cured of HIV was announced.

Comparing the COVID-19 Coronavirus to 7 Other Infectious Diseases
Source: gevende/iStock

Today, there are approximately 37 million people living with HIV, and cases have been reduced by 40% since its peak in 1997, as access to antiretroviral medicines has a greatly extended life expectancy. Today, approximately 68% of global HIV/AIDS cases are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is due largely to poor economic conditions and a lack of sex education.

People living with HIV (end of 2018): 32.7 million–44.0 million

Death toll (2019): 570 000–1.1 million

Source: UNAIDS

5. Ebola

Unlike the COVID-19 coronavirus, Ebola, also known as EVD, is not an airborne disease; infection occurs solely when someone comes into direct contact with bodily fluids of some who is infected.

Recent outbreaks of the viral infection, which was first detected during an outbreak in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, have led to alarming spikes in deaths from the virus. 

Ebola is another virus that is thought to have originated in bats — in this case, specifically, fruit bats, which are a local delicacy where the outbreak started. Ebola caused the deaths of approximately 11,325 people between 2014 and 2016 and the fatality rate sits at an average of 50%, according to the World Health Organization.

Cases (Aug 2018- Nov 2019): 3,296

Deaths (Aug 2018- Nov 2019): 2,196

Source: CDC

6. Meningitis

Meningitis is caused by inflammation of the meninges. These are membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The infectious disease is often caused by fungi, viruses, and bacteria, though it is also possible to get it after suffering a head injury, having brain surgery or having specific types of cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, small outbreaks of meningitis occur sporadically worldwide, except in the African Meningitis Belt where large outbreaks are common and account for most deaths.

The disease can cause flu-like symptoms, as well as vomiting, nausea increased sensitivity to light and a confused mental state.

Yearly cases: approx. 1.5 million

Yearly death toll: approx. 170,000

Sources: CDC/COMO Meningitis

7. Malaria

Malaria is caused by a parasite that is carried by mosquitoes. The initial symptoms include fever, chills and flu-like symptoms, which can quickly progress into more serious complications.

The disease was eliminated from the U.S. in 1951 thanks to the pesticide DDT. Campaigns are ongoing to distribute mosquito nets to help prevent the disease in poorer countries.

As the WHO says, "Africa carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden." In 2018, Africa saw 93% of malaria cases and 94% of malaria deaths.

Cases (2018): 228 million

Deaths (2018): 405, 000

Source: WHO

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