It’s 100 years since the so called “Spanish Flu” infected 1/3 of the global population and killed at least 50-100 million people – 5% of the global population at the time. These are staggering statistics and one reason why it has been called the Greatest Pandemic in History. What is more surprising is that 20-40 year olds were the most affected.
Here are some of the reasons why it was so severe, why travel and history are entwined and why it remains a threat even in our modern age.
It was a new influenza virus (Influenza A, H1N1) so there was no prior immunity, especially for young people.
The exact origins of the virus are unknown but it is thought to have started in Asia and is known to have been brought to Europe by US troops towards the end of the First World War.
It was named “Spanish Flu” because the Spanish media were the first to describe it. Spain was not involved in the war. In comparison both the Germans and the allied countries suppressed information to minimise harm to the war effort. The close surroundings of young men at war, as well as population movements, helped its spread. It was not however confined only to those involved in the war, also affecting the wider population.
There were no antibiotics to treat pneumonia at that time and public health and hygiene was in its infancy.
No country was spared including Australia, although we missed most of the epidemic because of distance, limited travel and the advanced warning and subsequent quarantine measures put in place.
There a number of reasons why a Flu Pandemic remains a threat today
On any one day there are an estimated 8 million people flying. That excludes train and bus travel.
The time frame to travel from one side of the world to the other is now less than 24hrs.
Influenza is passed on by coughing, sneezing and touching surfaces and then through hand to mouth.
With increasing urbanisation globally we live closer together that we ever have done in history. In many parts of the world, particularly Asia, we live closer than ever to animals and birds, which are the source of the newest influenza viruses.
The death rate from Spanish Flu was thought to be 1 in every 50 people. Swine Flu 2009 was 1 in 5000. SARS was 1 in 6. Ebola Virus 1 in 2.
We now know that young adults have a more severe form of the illness due to the fact they have not lived long enough to have been exposed to the virus before and it is actually their immune response that causes most of the complications of the flu. Vaccination allows the immune system to create protection in a smaller, step wise way over time.
However its not all doom and gloom; we also have much better health care, disease monitoring, sanitation, hygiene, vaccination, antiviral and antibiotic medication.
Dr David Rutherford