How does COVID-19 compare to the Spanish flu pandemic?

Buckley Report

(WGHP) — What separates humans from other life on earth is our ability to learn from our experience, use reason and develop technology.

We don’t always do that as well as we should. Take the 1918 Influenza Pandemic for example.

“We learned a lot of things during that pandemic…that, unfortunately, were forgotten,” said Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease specialist at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Before we look at what we know about the 1918 pandemic, we need to understand that even though it’s often referred to as “The Spanish Flu,” it may not be Spanish at all.

“There’s actually a theory that the epicenter of that great influenza pandemic was here in the United States,” Dr. Ohl said. “And while a little controversial, I think it’s probably true that it occurred on a farm in Kansas with some chickens. And a girl got sick, and then her brother got sick, and then he got shipped out to one of the (US Army) southern basic training areas, and that may have been where it started.”

The soldiers were in such tight quarters that the virus quickly and easily spread among them, eventually infecting between a quarter and a third of everyone on earth, killing 50 million people, which was almost 3% of the world’s population at the time.

It’s certainly true that we didn’t have the same kind of science back then. Cassandra Workman, an anthropologist at UNC-Greensboro who teaches an entire class on pandemics through history, says the mood of the country at the time may have led us to think the virus would be relatively easily defeated.

“(The era of World War I) were the burgeoning days of public health…medical science was making such advances that there was this sense of – not invincibility – but power over disease and particularly infectious disease because it was really at that time, in the decades preceding, where infectious disease rates had dropped really precipitously with the advent public health and things like improved sewer and water,” Workman said.

Germ theory had been developed about 40 years before, so there was an understanding of what we were dealing with and, to a degree, still are.

“(That 1918 flu virus) by the way, still circulates pretty much every year, but it’s not nearly as nasty as it was back then,” Dr. Ohl said.

Not only is it circulating, but Dr. Ohl says we eventually were able to map its genetic code when some people who had the virus in Alaska, where they were frozen and, therefore, preserved, were able to provide samples.

But that number – 50 million killed worldwide – is staggering even with the more primitive medical care of the time when you consider the virus probably had to do more to overwhelm people in those days.

“If you look at the population of the US as a whole, we were younger, probably healthier, less overweight, a lot less diabetes, and all these diseases that increase the risk of coronavirus,” Dr. Ohl said.

This brings us to bask to COVID-19, which is far less dangerous than that flu virus. To date, it has killed about less than one-tenth of 1% of the world population (0.07%) but still has taken roughly 5.5 million lives.

“It’s when you see these really big disruptions in regular life that you’re like ‘OK, this is something bigger than what we’ve seen in the last 100 years,’” said Joann Gruber, an epidemiologist who teaches public health at Elon University and spent much of her career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

See more parallels and contrasts between the 1918 Influenza pandemic and our current situation in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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