Friday, January 25, 2008

Anniversary of 1918 pandemic flu offers lessons

This year marks the 90th anniversary of one of the worst disease outbreaks in human history: the 1918 flu. From 1918 to 1919, waves of a deadly flu strain killed between 30 million and 50 million people around the world, with about 675,000 deaths in the United States alone. Even villages in the Arctic Circle and islands in the South Pacific were hit by the pandemic.

The 1918 flu -- often called the "Spanish" flu because early cases of the disease were linked to Spain -- was unique. It was deadlier for young, otherwise healthy adults than for the very young or old. The virus also acted quickly: Histories tell many stories of people falling ill and dying within a matter of hours.

Even as the pandemic swept the globe, scientists and doctors did not yet fully understand its cause. They did, however, know that it spread during coughing and sneezing. As a result, U.S. cities and communities tried to stop the spread of the virus however they could. Some towns recommended or required that residents wear masks, while other places used quarantines or banned out-of-town visitors.

To make matters worse, the 1918 flu came at a bad time. Not only did the mass mobilizations of World War I quicken the spread of the flu, but the large numbers of medical staff needed abroad for the conflict caused of doctors and nurses at home during the worst stages of the pandemic.

In the summer of 1919, to everyone's relief , the Spanish flu pandemic ended. Public health officials and scientists today study the 1918 flu to better understand how the pandemic happened and to learn what can be done to prevent history from repeating itself. As we look back on this anniversary, one of the most important lessons we can take away is the need to prepare. These materials from APHA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can help get you and your community started.

Photo caption: A street conductor in Seattle tells passengers they can't board without a mask during the flu pandemic in 1918. Courtesy National Archives.

1 comment:

Adam said...

We should all take a lesson away from this anniversary to understand that Pandemic/Avian influenza is a very real scenario. It is only a matter of time before this dire scenario becomes a reality once again and we must be prepared. Great article and history lesson.