One hundred years ago, the deadliest influenza pandemic of all time made a ravaging march across the globe.
The “Spanish” flu of 1918-19 infected an estimated one-third of the world’s population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people, modern epidemiologists estimate.
That raises the inevitable question as the United States battles its way through another severe flu season — could a pandemic as devastating in scope occur in the future?
It’s “100 percent” certain that another global flu crisis will happen, said Dr. Greg Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“There’s absolutely no controversy that we will have another pandemic,” Poland said. “What’s unpredictable is the severity of it.”
Poland is concerned that a new and deadly strain of flu could emerge that would sweep across the planet, erasing every advantage that modern medicine has given doctors in treating the flu.
“I’ve learned after 30 years of studying this virus is there’s next to nothing predictable about it, and when you begin to feel comfortable, you’re well on the road to bad things happening,” Poland said.
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more people than any other disease outbreak in human history, according to “The Great Influenza,” a definitive account written by historian John Barry.
“Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century,” Barry wrote. “It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years.”
Medical Advances Might Make a Difference
Many medical advances since 1918 have improved people’s ability to survive a flu infection, including antivirals and antibiotics, ventilators and vaccinations to protect against both the flu and pneumonia, said Dr. Nicole Bouvier. She’s an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
“We have good supportive care to nurse people through an acute and horrible case of flu,” Bouvier said. “We’re better able to get people through a critical illness than we were in 1918.”
Additionally, the 1918 influenza virus — an H1N1 strain — seems to have been more virulent than any flu that’s since gone on to cause a pandemic, Bouvier said.
In fact, the 1918 flu was so bad that it has echoed through history. Epidemiologists believe almost all animal-derived influenza cases that have occurred since were caused by strains descended from the 1918 virus.
“It certainly is possible that a flu virus could again arise in the animal reservoir that is more pathogenic than the typical flu,” Bouvier said.
By: Dennis Thompson
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