Experts Suggest Learning The 1918 Great Influenza Pandemic To Fight The Next Spanish Flu

Experts Suggest Learning The 1918 Great Influenza Pandemic To Fight The Next Spanish Flu
(Photo: Facebook/Beth Arseneau)

In case people did not know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 called "Spanish flu." Between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, representing as much as 5 percent of the world's total 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.

According to Science Daily, there is a new study into the human, viral, and societal factors behind its severity that could provide valuable lessons to help save lives in future pandemics. Publishing in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, the authors warn that while the world is better prepared than 100 years ago, new challenges will affect the impact of the next influenza virus pandemic, including changing population demographics, antibiotic resistance, and climate change.

"We've seen three additional influenza pandemics since 1918: the 1957 'Asian' flu, the 1968 'Hong Kong' flu, and the 2009 'swine' flu. Although milder than the 1918 pandemic, these highlight the constant threat that influenza virus poses to human health," says University of Melbourne Professor Katherine Kedzierska of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), Australia.

The pandemic likely acquired the nickname "Spanish flu" 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.

The team theorizes that this was due in part due to older citizens have built up some immunity through previous infections. Most of those killed in 1918 died due to secondary bacterial infections, something that antibiotics helped alleviate during subsequent pandemics.

But today immunity to antibiotics is a problem.

"This increases the risk that people again will suffer from and die as a result of secondary bacterial infections during the next pandemic outbreak," says Katherine Kedzierska, from Melbourne's Doherty Institute.

The authors cite avian H7N9 - a virus that kills roughly 40 percent of people it infects, even if it cannot currently pass from human to human, Kopitiam Bot reports.

"At the moment, none of these viruses has acquired the ability to spread between humans, but we know that the virus only needs to make a few minor changes to make this happen and could create a new influenza pandemic."

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