Breaking News
February 19, 2018 - Study sheds light on biology that guides behavior across different stages of life
February 19, 2018 - Morning Break: Transgender Breast Feeding; Brazilian ‘Pro-Vaxxers’; Post-Stroke Exercise
February 19, 2018 - Meningitis vaccination strategy in Africa found to be effective, economical
February 19, 2018 - Researchers uncover how excess calcium may influence development of Parkinson’s disease
February 19, 2018 - Psoriasis drug also effective at reducing aortic inflammation
February 19, 2018 - Excess emissions can make serious contributions to air pollution, study shows
February 19, 2018 - Diabetes Drugs Differ on HF; School-Based Obesity Program Flop; Plaque Type in ACS
February 19, 2018 - Surgical infections linked to drug-resistant bugs, study suggests
February 19, 2018 - Poor awareness may hinder a child’s early dental care
February 19, 2018 - FDA Approves Apalutamide (Erleada) to Help Curb a Tough-to-Treat Prostate Cancer
February 19, 2018 - Educational Tool Boosts Cervical Length Screening
February 19, 2018 - Spider’s web inspires removable implant that may control type 1 diabetes
February 19, 2018 - Scientists develop fluorescent probe to identify cancer stem cells
February 19, 2018 - University Hospital of Santiago de Compostela participates in large pancreatic cancer study
February 19, 2018 - New blood test shows promise to revolutionize diagnosis of tick-borne diseases
February 19, 2018 - Report: Use, Not Price, Drives State Health Costs
February 19, 2018 - Emergency services crews often unprepared for diabetic crises
February 19, 2018 - Scientists in Sweden create DNA nanowires that offer hope for treatment of diseases
February 19, 2018 - ID Break: Clean Hands, Fewer Abx; $11 Million HIV Cure?; MenB Vax for Kids
February 19, 2018 - Patient exposure to X-rays depends on how dentists are paid
February 19, 2018 - Study reveals parents’ views toward children’s tanning bed use
February 19, 2018 - Shot may help reduce risk of shingles
February 19, 2018 - FDA approves first treatment to reduce risk of NSCLC progression
February 19, 2018 - FDA Expands Approval of Imfinzi (durvalumab) to Reduce the Risk of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Progressing
February 19, 2018 - D.C. Week: Congress Passes Spending Bill
February 19, 2018 - Heart-muscle patches made with human cells improve heart attack recovery
February 19, 2018 - FDA Approves First Blood Test to Detect Concussions
February 19, 2018 - Survival Bump in Bladder Cancer with Keytruda
February 18, 2018 - Scientists describe the mechanism of heart regeneration in the zebrafish
February 18, 2018 - Scientists uncover the structure of microtubule motor proteins
February 18, 2018 - Light-activated cancer drugs without toxic side effects are closer to becoming reality
February 18, 2018 - Pioneering research could provide novel insight into how genomic information is read
February 18, 2018 - Pearls From: David Putrino, PhD
February 18, 2018 - Researchers uncover how cancer stem cells drive triple-negative breast cancer
February 18, 2018 - Morning Break: Anti-Anti-Vaxxers; Private Piercings Prohibited; A Case for Pelvic Massage
February 18, 2018 - Lower-dose radiation effective, safe for HPV+ head and neck cancer after induction chemo
February 18, 2018 - Specialist residential service for adults with autism opens in Swansea
February 18, 2018 - FDA Moves to Limit Loperamide Doses per Package
February 18, 2018 - Alcohol use disorder – Genetics Home Reference
February 18, 2018 - Autism might be better detected using new two-minute questionnaire
February 18, 2018 - Hand hygiene-intervention practices may reduce risk of infection among nursing home patients
February 18, 2018 - Researchers develop most sophisticated mini-livers to date
February 18, 2018 - Obamacare Helped More Young Women Get Prenatal Care: Study
February 18, 2018 - School-Based Program Fails to Dent Kids’ Obesity
February 18, 2018 - Research compares neural activity in children with and without autism spectrum disorder
February 18, 2018 - Poor fitness levels increase the risk dementia, concludes study
February 18, 2018 - Risk Score May Reveal if Kids are Victims of Ill-Treatment
February 18, 2018 - Adding Folic Acid to Corn Masa Flour May Prevent Birth Defects
February 18, 2018 - Acute treatment suppresses posttraumatic arthritis in ankle injury
February 18, 2018 - A Role for Budesonide in Autoimmune Hepatitis?
February 18, 2018 - Lupus patients exhibit altered cell proteins, a discovery with potential implications for diagnostics
February 18, 2018 - Muscle plays vital role in regulating heat loss from the hands
February 18, 2018 - High-tech brain scans can provide new way to define intelligence
February 18, 2018 - Study reveals the association between ultra-processed foods and cancer
February 18, 2018 - Prescription Opioid Use Tied to Higher Pneumonia Risk
February 18, 2018 - A non-invasive method to detect Alzheimer’s disease
February 18, 2018 - Deletion of specific enzyme leads to improvement in memory and cognitive functions
February 18, 2018 - Amyloid protein may be transmitted through neurosurgical instruments, study suggests
February 18, 2018 - Electric brain signals of males and females show differences
February 18, 2018 - American Heart Association commends McDonald’s for offering healthier menu in kids’ meals
February 18, 2018 - Parents Find Kids’ Weight Report Cards Hard to Swallow
February 18, 2018 - Does a Financial Conflict of Interest Ever Expire?
February 18, 2018 - Exercise can improve Alzheimer’s symptoms
February 18, 2018 - Scientists develop green chemistry method to improve pharmaceutical manufacturing efficiency
February 17, 2018 - ‘A Time Clock to a Tissue Clock’ for Acute Stroke Care
February 17, 2018 - Cancer Care Gets Personal | NIH News in Health
February 17, 2018 - Do more youth use or do youth use more?
February 17, 2018 - Eating faster linked to obesity
February 17, 2018 - Who’s Still Smoking? ACS Report Highlights Most Vulnerable Adults
February 17, 2018 - Study of smoking and genetics illuminates complexities of blood pressure
February 17, 2018 - Study reveals new link between bone cells and blood glucose level
February 17, 2018 - Children with reading challenges may have lower than expected binocular vision test results
February 17, 2018 - Mass Shootings Trigger Change for Emergency Medicine
February 17, 2018 - ECMO helps revive woman thought to be drowned
February 17, 2018 - Learning stress-reducing techniques may benefit people with epilepsy
February 17, 2018 - Shedding Pounds Before Weight-Loss Surgery a Smart Move
February 17, 2018 - FDA Approves New Cystic Fibrosis Drug Combo
February 17, 2018 - Augmented Reality helps surgeons to ‘see through’ tissue and reconnect blood vessels
February 17, 2018 - Emotional state affects operation of the entire brain instead of being restricted to specific regions
February 17, 2018 - Apalutamide Slows Metastasis in Prostate Cancer
The ‘greatest pandemic in history’ was 100 years ago – but many of us still get the basic facts wrong

The ‘greatest pandemic in history’ was 100 years ago – but many of us still get the basic facts wrong

image_pdfDownload PDFimage_print
Patients receive care for the Spanish flu at Walter Reed Military Hospital, in Washington, D.C. Credit: origins.osu.edu

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great influenza pandemic of 1918. Between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, representing as much as 5 percent of the world’s population. Half a billion people were infected.

Especially remarkable was the 1918 flu’s predilection for taking the lives of otherwise healthy young adults, as opposed to children and the elderly, who usually suffer most. Some have called it the greatest pandemic in history.

The 1918 flu pandemic has been a regular subject of speculation over the last century. Historians and scientists have advanced numerous hypotheses regarding its origin, spread and consequences. As a result, many of us harbor misconceptions about it.

By correcting these 10 myths, we can better understand what actually happened and learn how to prevent and mitigate such disasters in the future.

1. The pandemic originated in Spain

No one believes the so-called “Spanish flu” originated in Spain.

The pandemic likely acquired this nickname because of World War I, which was in full swing at the time. The major countries involved in the war were keen to avoid encouraging their enemies, so reports of the extent of the flu were suppressed in Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and the U.S. By contrast, neutral Spain had no need to keep the flu under wraps. That created the false impression that Spain was bearing the brunt of the disease.

In fact, the geographic origin of the flu is debated to this day, though hypotheses have suggested East Asia, Europe and even Kansas.

2. The pandemic was the work of a ‘super-virus’

The 1918 flu spread rapidly, killing 25 million people in just the first six months. This led some to fear the end of mankind, and has long fueled the supposition that the strain of influenza was particularly lethal.

However, more recent study suggests that the virus itself, though more lethal than other strains, was not fundamentally different from those that caused epidemics in other years.

Much of the high death rate can be attributed to crowding in military camps and urban environments, as well as poor nutrition and sanitation, which suffered during wartime. It’s now thought that many of the deaths were due to the development of bacterial pneumonias in lungs weakened by influenza.

3. The first wave of the pandemic was most lethal

Actually, the initial wave of deaths from the pandemic in the first half of 1918 was relatively low.

It was in the second wave, from October through December of that year, that the highest death rates were observed. A third wave in spring of 1919 was more lethal than the first but less so than the second.

Scientists now believe that the marked increase in deaths in the second wave was caused by conditions that favored the spread of a deadlier strain. People with mild cases stayed home, but those with severe cases were often crowded together in hospitals and camps, increasing transmission of a more lethal form of the virus.

4. The virus killed most people who were infected with it

In fact, the vast majority of the people who contracted the 1918 flu survived. National death rates among the infected generally did not exceed 20 percent.

However, death rates varied among different groups. In the U.S., deaths were particularly high among Native American populations, perhaps due to lower rates of exposure to past strains of influenza. In some cases, entire Native communities were wiped out.

Of course, even a 20 percent death rate vastly exceeds a typical flu, which kills less than one percent of those infected.

5. Therapies of the day had little impact on the disease

No specific anti-viral therapies were available during the 1918 flu. That’s still largely true today, where most medical care for the flu aims to support patients, rather than cure them.

One hypothesis suggests that many flu deaths could actually be attributed to aspirin poisoning. Medical authorities at the time recommended large doses of aspirin of up to 30 grams per day. Today, about four grams would be considered the maximum safe daily dose. Large doses of aspirin can lead to many of the pandemic’s symptoms, including bleeding.

However, death rates seem to have been equally high in some places in the world where aspirin was not so readily available, so the debate continues.

6. The pandemic dominated the day’s news

Public health officials, law enforcement officers and politicians had reasons to underplay the severity of the 1918 flu, which resulted in less coverage in the press. In addition to the fear that full disclosure might embolden enemies during wartime, they wanted to preserve public order and avoid panic.

However, officials did respond. At the height of the pandemic, quarantines were instituted in many cities. Some were forced to restrict essential services, including police and fire.

7. The pandemic changed the course of World War I

It’s unlikely that the flu changed the outcome of World War I, because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected.

However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.

8. Widespread immunization ended the pandemic

Immunization against the flu as we know it today was not practiced in 1918, and thus played no role in ending the pandemic.

Exposure to prior strains of the flu may have offered some protection. For example, soldiers who had served in the military for years suffered lower rates of death than new recruits.

In addition, the rapidly mutating virus likely evolved over time into less lethal strains. This is predicted by models of natural selection. Because highly lethal strains kill their host rapidly, they cannot spread as easily as less lethal strains.

9. The genes of the virus have never been sequenced

In 2005, researchers announced that they had successfully determined the gene sequence of the 1918 influenza virus. The virus was recovered from the body of a flu victim buried in the permafrost of Alaska, as well as from samples of American soldiers who fell ill at the time.

Two years later, monkeys infected with the virus were found to exhibit the symptoms observed during the pandemic. Studies suggest that the monkeys died when their immune systems overreacted to the virus, a so-called “cytokine storm.” Scientists now believe that a similar immune system overreaction contributed to high death rates among otherwise healthy young adults in 1918.

10. The 1918 pandemic offers few lessons for 2018

Severe influenza epidemics tend to occur every few decades. Experts believe that the next one is a question not of “if” but “when.”

While few living people can recall the great flu pandemic of 1918, we can continue to learn its lessons, which range from the commonsense value of handwashing and immunizations to the potential of anti-viral drugs. Today we know more about how to isolate and handle large numbers of ill and dying patients, and we can prescribe antibiotics, not available in 1918, to combat secondary bacterial infections. Perhaps the best hope lies in improving nutrition, sanitation and standards of living, which render patients better able to resist the infection.

For the foreseeable future, flu epidemics will remain an annual feature of the rhythm of human life. As a society, we can only hope that we have learned the great pandemic’s lessons sufficiently well to quell another such worldwide catastrophe.


Explore further:
The mystery of a 1918 veteran and the flu pandemic

Provided by:
The Conversation

Tagged with:

About author

Related Articles