In 2018, we recollected the 100-year anniversary of the infamous “Spanish Flu” pandemic that swept across the world. Little did we know, that in the next couple of years we would be experiencing another one in 100-year pandemic (and hopefully the last for the next 100 years). The next pandemic we experienced was that of COVID-19. Both of these pandemics were caused by respiratory viruses that were highly contagious and deadly. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll go over a little bit of the history of the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the numbers of COVID-19.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the timeline of the 1918 pandemic to better understand the history. In 1918, a new strain of the influenza virus emerged around the time of WWI. This is important to note because during this time the conditions were perfect for the spread of a respiratory virus. There was over crowding and a great deal of global travel due to the war, meaning troops were spreading the virus all over the world.
In March of 1918, there are outbreaks of flu-like illness detected in the US. More than 100 soldiers at Camp Funston become ill and the number of cases quintuples in just a week. Over the next six months, we see it spread across the US, Europe, and Asia. In April of 1918, the first mention of severe cases of influenza and even three deaths appear in a weekly public health report in Kansas. By May, hundreds of thousands of soldiers are deployed for WWI and in September a second wave of flu peaks in the US. This second wave is highly fatal and responsible for most of the deaths in the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, public health officials implemented different tactics to help mitigate the spread of influenza. These included things like encouraging stores and factories to stagger opening and closing hours to prevent overcrowding, encouraging people to walk to work instead using public transit, educating the public about the dangers of coughing and sneezing, and wearing masks. Interestingly enough, we have used these same tactics in 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It is estimated that about 500 million people (or one-third of the world’s population) were infected with the flu virus. It’s also estimated that 50 million people died, with approximately 675,000 occurring in the United States. Many of these deaths occurred in people younger than 5, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. Because there were no vaccines or antibiotics to treat secondary infections, control efforts such as isolation, quarantine, good hand hygiene, and limiting gathering were implemented. These are also things we’ve used to help prevent the spread of COVID.
Now let’s take a look at the numbers of COVID. According to Johns Hopkins University, at the time this article was written there were over 96 million cases and over 2 million deaths all over the world. The US accounts for over 24 million cases and over 401,000 deaths. In Ohio, there has been 836,055 total cases, 43,605 hospitalizations and 9,252 confirmed deaths. Meigs County accounts for 1,050 of those cases, 51 of the hospitalizations, and 21 of the deaths. The deaths are always disheartening to see, regardless of how big or small the numbers. With the vaccination efforts in place, we will hopefully see a decline in all of the statistics.
Is it safe to say we’ve learned from our past pandemic of a respiratory virus? I’ll let you be judge of that after reading this article and doing your own research. I would say we definitely have seen what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully our vaccines will save lives and prevent cases. Stay safe and stay healthy, friends.
Mikie Strite, MPH, is the SCO Regional Epidemiologist.