The Swine Flu Scare, and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

Masked Albertan farmworkers during 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

When the deaths began to pile up, and most of those affected were young healthy people, just like the Spanish flu, it is easy to see how the World Health Organization was afraid they might be looking at another deadly flu pandemic…

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / May 1, 2009

In 1918, the Spanish flu raged around the world, killing many millions of people. That pandemic was caused by a strain of the flu virus called H1N1. A few days ago, the H1N1 virus popped up again. This time it was called Swine flu. Although it was believed to have started in Mexico (that’s where the largest number of patients and deaths are so far), it spread quickly and in just a few days has shown up in several countries on several continents.

When the deaths began to pile up, and most of those affected were young healthy people, just like the Spanish flu, it is easy to see how the World Health Organization (WHO) was afraid they might be looking at another deadly flu pandemic — just like the one 91 years ago.

The WHO, the USCDC (Center for Disease Control) and state health departments have quickly taken action to try and head off the feared new pandemic. People with any flu symptoms are urged not to go to work or school. Drugstores are selling out of face masks. Event have been cancelled and schools have been closed. News of the new flu have been covered extensively by all types of media.

These may be reasonable actions or may be overreactions. No one knows yet. But scientists who have been studying the new H1N1 virus think the new flu may be more benign than was previously believed. They have found some small differences between the current version of H1N1 and the 1918 H1N1.

One of these differences is the absence of an amino acid in the current version. This amino acid helped the 1918 virus to replicate itself very rapidly once it entered the lungs. This made the virus extremely deadly. The absence of this amino acid could be why the current version of H1N1 is not as virulent.

This does not mean the virus is not dangerous. It obviously has killed. But it may turn out to be no more deadly than more common strains of flu (which can kill 30,000 to 40,000 people each year in the United States). That is a tragic figure, but nowhere near the death toll racked up by the 1918 Spanish flu.

Another oddity of this new Swine flu is that it is not striking the elderly. Normally, the elderly and children are the groups most likely to die from the flu. Why is this virus different?

The scientists think they may know. There was a flu pandemic in 1957 that killed around 2 million people. It is believed that those who were exposed to the 1957 flu may have an immunity to the current H1N1 virus. That would basically cover those in their mid-fifties and older.

Other than gaining a bit of wisdom, there aren’t a lot of advantages to growing old. But it looks like this could be one of those few advantages.

[Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger, an excellent Texas political blog.]

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to The Swine Flu Scare, and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

  1. Dr. Stephen R. Keister says:

    Thank you for the excellent review. I was born 2 years after the 1919 version of the “Spanish Flu” hasd subsided, but remember well throughout my childhood the tales the survivors had to tell. Several years ago, wandering Barnes-Noble I came upon a book by Gina Kolata entitled “Flu”. This is an excellent 300+ page discussion of the events of 1918-1919. The author points out that in our study of history and in the current history texts that little or nothing is said about the largest world wide disaster to ever encompass mankind, i.e. 50 million, estimated, dead. The most afflicted were healthy young folks, not the elderly nor children.

    One thing sticks out and that is the fact that the Spanish Flu surfaced in the spring of 1918, subsided with summer, and everyone relaxed, only to have hell break loose in the autumn of 1918 and really accelerate in the ensuing winter. Does history repeat? I imagine crash production of vaccines has its problems, remembering the ascending myelitis as a complication of the vaccine for the “swine flu” of some 50 years ago.

    Your next to last paragraph is encouraging for we elderly curmudgeons ! Thank you again. Please continue your bulletins.

    Dr. Stephen Keister

  2. Roger Baker says:

    Here is the best conventional info I have found so far on the fascinating topic of the epidemiology of influenza, which is one of the LEAST preventable kinds of transmittable infections, largely because humans are always congregating in groups and touching their face without washing their hands:

    http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol12no01/05-1370.htm

    Next is a quite respectable review of flu epidemiology, documenting the huge gaps in what is actually known, see especially the introduction at the following link. Probably a big part of this ignorance revolves around the fact that in recent decades preventative medicine is not so profitable or well funded. The emphasis is on curative medicine using profitable, if weakly effective, drugs.

    http://www.virologyj.com/content/5/1/29

    The transmission model that best fits the facts is that there are asymptomatic carriers and infections complicating the picture, and not just simple sick-to-well transmission is going on. Nobody has ever explained the seasonal variation of flu. The conclusion that vitamin D could play a key role is interesting because — even assuming the authors have a 90% chance of being wrong — the cost of 2000 units per day of D is only about fifteen cents a day and it is not toxic except in far higher amounts.

    — Roger

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great, great, great
    Thanks for information not scare tactics

  4. lionmother says:

    Thank you for this excellent and informative article on the current strain of H1N1 flu. I was born much later, but I remember the stories my mother told of what happened in her family. My grandmother lost two year old twin boys to that epidemic and their little graves were a constant reminder every year to me that flu kills. So I was definitely worried when this flu was likened to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

    Now I am feeling better, but I carry a bottle of sanitizer in my bag and use it every time I touch anything in public.

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