4 Lessons From the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

4 Lessons From the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Press Reporter

MONDAY, April 20, 2020 (HealthDay News)– The virus struck quickly, stoking panic, worry and skepticism as it sickened millions and eliminated thousands– and now, more than a century later, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic offers lasting lessons for a world in the grip of COVID-19

” The questions they asked then are the concerns being asked now,” said Christopher Nichols, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. “And while it’s very rare that history offers an easy straightforward lesson for today, this is one of those circumstances.”

Specialists state there are four key takeaways from 1918.

Here’s the very first: As devastating as the present pandemic may be, the Spanish flu pandemic remains the worst in world history– without a doubt, stated E. Thomas Ewing, a history teacher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

By the time 3 waves of Spanish flu swept around the world in 1918 and 1919, a minimum of 50 million people were dead, consisting of 675,000 Americans. (By contrast, flu pandemics in 1957, 1968 and 2009 declared an approximated overall of 225,000 Americans and 3 million people worldwide.)

Here’s the 2nd takeaway: There are key distinctions in between 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

” Then, they didn’t even know it was an infection,” Ewing stated.

As an outcome, screening wasn’t simply hard to come by. It merely didn’t exist.

Spanish influenza was likewise more infectious than COVID-19, triggered signs much faster and was much more deadly, Nichols stated. And unlike COVID-19, which presents the greatest risk to the elderly, Spanish flu targeted the young.

” It affected everybody young and old,” Nichols said.


The 3rd takeaway: Despite those differences, the parallels in between 1918 and 2020 are still striking. In both cases, there was no vaccine and no treatment for the disease in addition to an overriding worry that a besieged health care system may split.

And here’s takeaway No. 4: In both pandemics, the most efficient immediate action was– and is– social distancing, Nichols stated.

” It was called ‘crowding’ control” at that time, he stated. “But whatever you call it, limiting contact operated in 1918– and it works today.”

And the faster comprehensive closures and social distancing are put into location, the quicker a pandemic can be brought under control, Nichols included.

Those who lived through the Spanish flu learned that lesson the tough method, according to Carolyn Orbann, a medical anthropologist at the University of Missouri, in Columbia.

” Similar to all pandemics, in 1918 you had a stress in between biological reality and socioeconomic reality,” she said. “Biology is not changeable. But habits is. Yes, social distancing was definitely a thing in 1918, and where it was practiced, it worked.”

But out of worry, panic, skepticism, special interests– and even large dullness, Orbann stated, numerous were too slow to get on board and too fast to jump ship. Historians see the proof in letters written at the same time by the exact same families.

” The mom is stating, ‘We all require to be patient, lay low and wait it out,’ while the child is stating she’s had enough of no school and no good friends, and she’s planning a Halloween party, just as the greatest number of deaths are occurring,” Orbann explained.

That tension assists discuss the absence of an early and powerful federal response in 1918, according to Nichols and Ewing. Rather, authorities played down the threat and stalled for time.

Why? Some factors were distinct to1918 “The Spanish flu hit throughout a critical phase of World War I,” Nichols described.

By the time the very first presumed U.S. case was recognized in March 1918 at a Kansas army base, there was fantastic concern about soldiers getting ill. That concern was well-founded: The close quarters of Army camps were petri meals for disease, Orbann stated.


” Boys would … come back in body bags in such numbers that ultimately it ended up being practically difficult to separate the war effort from the pandemic,” she said.

And early on, the federal government had reason to play down the 1918 break out, Nichols kept in mind.

So, the advice from Washington, D.C., at that time might sound familiar today: Don’t panic. It’s no big offer.

” At first, they inform the general public it’s not a big issue, or– as the name suggests– that it’s a foreign illness that just affects ‘others,'” Nichols stated.

It wasn’t up until the fall, after a more virulent kind of Spanish influenza had emerged, that Washington, D.C., got tough.

While cities like Seattle and San Francisco ordered individuals to use masks if they were out in public, numerous others did not. New York City never ever closed schools, competing they were cleaner than houses– even though by October 1918, when deaths started to escalate, many cities did.

According to Ewing, “There were a lot of inconsistencies.”

Two research studies released in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took a look at the result of health measures in more than 15 cities in 1918, consisting of mask laws, business-hour limitations, and the shuttering of schools, theaters, churches and dance halls.

Both studies found that cities that acted earliest and most forcefully– like St. Louis, which enforced a near total lockdown within 2 days of its very first Spanish flu case– had much lower peak death rates than cities that hedged their bets– like New Orleans, Boston and Philadelphia.

The point is not that social distancing is a total remedy, but that there’s no “business-as-usual during a pandemic,” Nichols stated.


So, he said, the lesson from 1918 is clear.

” If public health is the primary focus, then eradicate that from your mind,” Nichols stated. “The Spanish influenza tells us that social distancing works. And it works best if we act early, act quickly and stick– and base our decisions not on social or economic concerns, however on science and data and realities.”


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