It’s been over 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic took nearly 100 million people from 1918 – 1919. The influenza strain swept Europe, with Germany, Italy and France being the hardest hit. But medical researchers say we are more prepared now than before, if it should ever make a comeback.
The 1918-19 pandemic was caused by a strain of H1N1, an influenza virus, linked to deadly epidemics.
The first recorded cases occurred in the US as WWI drew to a close.
Close quarters enabled the disease to spread rapidly, but in the first outbreak in the spring of 1918, the illness was still mild and contained within a small military camp.
But in September of the same year, troop movements across continents helped spread the disease.
By October, over 100,000 Americans had died. And by early 1919, more had caught the flu, and more succumbed, before the pandemic was finally contained later that year.
So deadly was the flu that in the UK, over 200, 000 people died. In the US, over 650, 000 lost their lives. And in Japan and India, millions succumbed to it.
Throughout the pandemic, researchers were puzzled by the age group of those who died.
Majority were young, healthy adults between 20 to 40 years old.
This was markedly different from other strains of flu which seemed to affect the elderly and the very young.
Well, they eventually found that the older people who were infected by Spanish flu would have likely been infected with a similar strain, and so already had some degree of immunity.
How Ready Are We Today?
Antibiotics – the key difference then and now. In 1918, antibiotics, along with anti-viral drugs and antimicrobials that dealt with pneumonia, a complication of influenza, were not yet invented.
Experts say that our chance of surviving the next global epidemic is much higher, thanks to all these vaccines.
But recent epidemics have reminded us that the fight is not over.
In 2002 – 2003, the SARS respiratory virus killed nearly 800 people and infected over 8,000 people around the world, before it was successfully contained in July 2003.
But since then, SARS has re-emerged four times in Singapore, Taipei and China.
Epidemic expert Dr Jonathan D Quick believes that the re-emergence of deadly influenza strains is why pharmaceutical firms must invest heavily in developing a vaccine that can prevent them.
He calls it a ‘universal flu vaccine, one which works against all strains of the virus, by targeting the part of the virus which doesn’t change’.