The Spanish Influenza – Why Medical Researchers Continue Their Investigation To This Day

Research into the Spanish Flu began in the early 1900s

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So why are physicians and medical researchers from all sorts of disciplines in many countries spending time and money on researching a pandemic that happened almost one hundred years ago? Because it is still with us in various, albeit less lethal strains, and because the Spanish flu had a vastly higher death rate than any other flu.

The following statistics are from a scientific paper, “1918 Influenza:The Mother of All Pandemics” published in Emerging Infectious Diseases Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2006.

The impact of this pandemic was not limited to 1918–1919. All influenza A pandemics since that time, and indeed almost all cases of influenza A worldwide (excepting human infections from avian viruses such as H5N1 and H7N7), have been caused by descendants of the 1918 virus, including “drifted” H1N1 viruses and reassorted H2N2 and H3N2 viruses. The latter are composed of key genes from the 1918 virus….An estimated one third of the world’s population (or ≈500 million persons) were infected and had clinically apparent illnesses during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic.

Hit the pause button a moment and think about this. One Third of the entire population of the world contracted the Spanish flu? One third of the entire world? And it all happened in less than 18 months with the bulk of cases concentrated in a twelve month period. That is one hell of a flu. This is the scary part:

The disease was exceptionally severe. Case fatality rates were >2.5%, compared to

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe.

In an article published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (abstract available here) in 2002 the authors state the following:

An estimated 50 million people, about 3% of the world’s population (1.8 billion at the time), died of the disease. Some 500 million, or 28% (≈1/4) were infected.

Pause button again. Three percent of the humans on the globe at that time died from the Spanish influenza? Three percent? That’s astounding. Unfortunately, it may have been much worse. The same authors write:

The recorded statistics of influenza morbidity and mortality are likely to be a significant understatement. Limitations of these data can include non-registration, missing records, misdiagnosis, and nonmedical certification, and may also vary greatly between locations. Further research has seen the consistent upward revision of the estimated global mortality of the pandemic, which a 1920s calculation put in the vicinity of 21.5 million. A 1991 paper revised the mortality as being in the range 24.7-39.3 million. This paper suggests that it was of the order of 50 million.

However, it must be acknowledged that even this vast figure may be substantially lower than the real toll, perhaps as much as 100 percent understated.

I broke out this last sentence. Using their figure for the population of the world (which they take from historical estimates made by the US Census Bureau), the math is simple. 50 million humans dead equals 3% of the population of the globe. 100 million dead of Spanish Influenza would mean SIX PERCENT of all the human beings on the face of the earth died in a very short period of time.

Children in the remote Alaskan village of Nushagak survived the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. However, most of their parents and grandparents succumbed to the 1918 pandemic virus, probably because they had not been exposed to an earlier H1-like influenza virus as a result of their geographic isolation. The photograph was taken in the summer of 1919.

Let me make this suggestion, if your Congressperson is committed to making deep cuts in the Federal budget, please suggest to them that we not cut the funds being used to investigate the Spanish Influenza.

(Statistical note: the research teams who wrote these articles took their estimate of global population in 1918-1919 from two different sources which accounts for the difference since the first article says 1/3 of the global population was infected and the second article says 1/4 of the global population was infected.)

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia and Experience Project.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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