Comparing Two Viral Pandemics

When you stop to think about just how far humanity has come as a civilization and the hurdles that have been crossed for the sake of survival, it almost feels like a miracle that mankind has lived this long. Everything from famine, desertification, war, and of course diseases, have riddled human history for centuries now. Most recently, another life altering event shook Earth’s populace: the outbreak of COVID-19.

With the way the virus spread around the world, it bore striking resemblance to the Spanish influenza that ravaged a third of the world’s population from 1918-1920. It wasn’t long before people started comparing this coronavirus pandemic to that of the Spanish flu.

The Spanish Flu

The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 influenza pandemic, has been described as one of the deadliest in history. Spreading during the First World War, reports about this deadly disease were either censored or minimized to maintain morale of soldiers and civilians during the war; that is, they were censored everywhere but in Spain. Accurate reports were given about the progression of the disease to residents of Spain because of the country’s neutrality during the war; hence the name, “the Spanish flu”. Ironically, the earliest records of the virus were not found in Spain, but in the United States, Asia and Europe.

Cause

The Spanish flu, or Spanish influenza, was an exceptionally deadly virus with a very high mortality rate and high rate of contagion spread across different countries. It was caused by the H1N1 Influenza A virus with genes of avian origin.

Symptoms

The symptoms experienced by the majority of affected patients were similar to those of a typical flu. Symptoms throughout the first wave included sore throat, headache, and fever; but symptoms got more severe in the second wave. The disease was complicated by the addition of pneumonia, which became the leading cause of death for infected persons.

American scientists believe that the reason why the Spanish flu was so deadly was due to the way it affected the human body. The Spanish flu is believed to trigger an auto immune response within the body that causes the human body to destroy its own cells. Of course, this symptom, quite similar to cancer, lowers the body’s immune response, making patients more susceptible to other conditions or complications such as pneumonia, which dealt the final blow.

Affected Individuals

The Spanish flu gained notoriety for its target victims and the members of the population with the highest mortality rate. The age range of people that were susceptible to the Spanish flu were:

  • Individuals below the age of 6
  • Individuals between 20-40 years of age
  • Individuals over age 65

The flu’s tendency to send seemingly healthy young people to their early graves was what casted a dark cloud during this pandemic. The average age of people that died during this pandemic was 28 years old.

Outlook

The world looked very different in the early 1900s and that doesn’t include the start of a war or a pandemic. Medical advancements we take for granted today were in their infancy or non-existent; communication methods were much slower; access to information was at a fraction of what it is today. Now, add in a world war and then a pandemic. BOOM! Chaos.

Healthcare professionals reported of dismal conditions in hospitals. Comparisons were made to the fourteenth century plague. Soldiers were appearing in droves, filling up cots and overflowing hospitals. Patients were left alone for 24 hours, many passing before being checked on. Funeral homes were inundated beyond what they could handle.

Little was known about viruses and medical professionals had certainly never seen one under an electron microscope because those didn’t exist. Protective equipment for healthcare workers was inadequate at best. There was no way to test the infected or perform sufficient contact tracing.

There were, however, some important similarities between today’s situation and that of 1918. Fear and dread hung in the air as everyone began stockpiling food, worrying about the economy and looking to the professionals for guidance.

Prevention

There were no curative methods or pharmaceutical interventions like antibiotics to help fight against the flu. Neither were there any vaccines available. Mostly, the methods of prevention that were available were non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolating and quarantining, practicing good personal hygiene, placing limits on large public gatherings and the wearing of protective gear for healthcare workers (despite the bleak state of that gear). Sound familiar?

Health professionals and health organizations like the Red Cross began posting flyers and announcements in newspapers, urging people not to leave home without those surgical masks we all know and love, and to follow instructions: “Do not take any person’s breath. Keep the mouth and teeth clean. Avoid those that cough and sneeze. Don’t visit poorly ventilated places. Keep warm, get fresh air and sunshine. Don’t use common drinking cups, towels, etc. Cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze. Avoid Worry, Fear and Fatigue. Stay at home if you have a cold. Walk to your work or office.”

Believe it or not, many cities even began closing schools, churches and other places where people could gather in large numbers, just like we did last year. Unlike in 2020 though, the science behind social distancing and good sanitary methods was quite young. As a result, these policies were not being strictly followed and didn’t prove very effective.

Treatments and Vaccines

At the time of the Spanish flu pandemic, there were no actual treatments available to patients, apart from one. The best method they had was to transfuse blood from a survivor into a sick patient, which proved somewhat effective but was difficult; blood typing and matching was still very new, and the blood had to be transfused directly from donor to patient (no intermediary machines). Other than that, healthcare workers had to resort to the preventative methods mentioned above to curb the spread of the disease and manage affected patients.

The lack of medical equipment of this era limited healthcare professionals in their search for treatment. A single vaccine for both types of the Spanish flu (type A and type B) wasn’t developed until 1942. While soldiers were able to use the vaccine during World War II, the vaccine wasn’t officially approved for civilian use until 1946.

Timeline

The Spanish flu pandemic lasted for two years, with its first case being recorded in March of 1918 and fading away by April of 1920. The U.S. Surgeon General at that time basically declared a state of emergency on October 1, 1918, requesting healthcare workers, emergency supplies and money.

Number of Infections

The exact number of infected people isn’t certain; however, it is believed that about a third of the world’s population at that time (which was roughly over 500 million people) were affected by the Spanish flu in four successive waves. This disease took hold of many countries, among them were the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

Number of Deaths

It is thought that the mortality rate of the Spanish flu varies from somewhere between 20 million and 50 million, although some experts will say it could be anywhere from 17 million to roughly 100 million.

Regardless of the variance in mortality rate, the truth still remains that the Spanish flu was definitely one of the deadliest sicknesses to ever ravage the world.

COVID-19

The year 2020 was marked for what seemed to be one catastrophe after the next; but probably the most noteworthy event that took hold of the year was the spread of the coronavirus. Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, originated from Wuhan China in 2019. In 2020, it spread to the rest of the world in what is currently an ongoing pandemic.

Cause

COVID -19 is caused by infection with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus strain. It is spread through respiratory routes such as the mouth and nose, as well as the eyes. A person can get infected when droplets and particles that are produced by an infected person come in contact with their respiratory routes.

Prevention

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, much like that of the Spanish flu, people were urged to practice social distancing. Wearing face masks and other protective gear was mandatory in certain places and proper sanitary hygiene (especially with regards to washing hands) was advised. This time around, we were also more aware of the mechanics of viruses, which prompted for 14-day quarantines if knowingly exposed. Compared to the time of the Spanish influenza, people seemed to find it easier to adapt to this new way of life.

Although it still took some time to develop, we also now have something the world didn’t when trying to combat the virus of their time: a vaccine. These vaccines provide immunity against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

Symptoms

COVID-19 symptoms can vary anywhere from mild to severe depending on the strain and the affected individual. In fact, there are people who can possess a strain of the virus without exhibiting any symptoms at all.

Usually, the symptoms of COVID-19 include a runny nose, nasal congestion, loss of taste and smell, headache, sore throat, diarrhea and breathing difficulties.

Other severe symptoms might arise such as mild pneumonia, dyspnea, and hypoxia.

Affected Individuals

Unlike with the Spanish flu, people that were initially affected during the covid pandemic were mostly the elderly or people with underlying health conditions such as hypertension or respiratory conditions. That is not to say it hasn’t affected individuals of all ages and levels of health.

In the U.S., the data on age groups affected is quite diverse, but the age groups with the most cases are between 18-29 and 50-64; however, the age group with the most recorded deaths is 85+. Also, White and Hispanic/Latino individuals have been affected at higher rates than other races.

Outlook

In addition to all the medical research, equipment, and protective gear we have today, a game changer for humanity during this is the invention of smart phones and technology. We were able to stay up to date in real time with all announcements, COVID-19 data, and informational content. Granted, this was not always beneficial because of all the misinformation out there, but it did much more good than harm. Agencies were even able to use our phones to perform contract tracing and help limit the number of people exposed.

An unfortunate similarity to the Spanish flu pandemic was the horrifying sight for front line workers. Hospitals were overrun with sick patients, many of them dying more quickly than doctors and nurses could fight off the virus.

Treatments and Vaccines

There is no actual treatment or cure for people affected with the coronavirus. However, there are ways it can be managed, known as supportive care. These methods to help manage patients’ status and relieve symptoms include oxygen support, fluid therapy, and prone position. Individuals with mild cases can also benefit from medication such as paracetamol to relieve symptoms such as body aches.

Additionally, the medical reality of today is far beyond that of 1918, allowing for researchers to view and isolate a virus, determine its genetic sequence and develop vaccines in record time. It may have felt like forever to us, but remember, vaccines for Spanish flu were not approved for civilians until 28 years after the start of the pandemic.

As soon as the spread of coronavirus was identified as a global pandemic, research was initiated to find out more about the best ways to manage the disease and eventually develop a vaccine or cure. After thorough but quick testing, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was given emergency authorization for distribution on December 11, 2020. As of July 15th, 2021, vaccines have been administered to 3,402,275,866 people globally.

Timeline

Reports of a new virus came out of Wuhan, China in December of 2019; it was considered a “novel coronavirus” by January 9th. By mid-March of 2020, the spread of the virus was characterized as a pandemic and the World Health Organization reported that Europe had now become an epicenter. Come the beginning of April, it was reported that the world had seen a tenfold increase to over 1 million confirmed cases within a month. Cases only continued to climb at exponential rates.

Number of Infections

The coronavirus quickly spread across the world. While there is no exact number of people that have been infected with the virus, as of July 15th, 2021, there’s a rough estimate of about 187,827,660 confirmed cases.

Number of Deaths

The total number of deaths, as of July 15th, 2021, that have been recorded so far is 4,055,497.

Final Thoughts

There are some striking similarities between both the Spanish flu and COVID-19 pandemics. They both spread quickly, were highly contagious and invoked fear in the global population.

Nonetheless, they also have some specific differences. Having been through several minor pandemics and epidemics in the last 100 years, humanity has been able to adapt to the more recent covid pandemic, changing the outcome drastically. Yes, millions have been killed by this virus, but the number is nowhere near what is was post-Spanish flu. We have learned and adjusted and prepared in ways that have made us more resilient and will protect us going forward.

It’s clear that advancement in technology made adapting to the “new normal” a lot easier for individuals living in the 21st century; and although the pandemic still persists, hopefully, in record time it will cease to exist.