1918-19 – That period must be the one coinciding with your grandparents or great parent’s birth. So, memories are only through archival records. The global toll was almost 50-100 million, whereas the US lost some 685000 people (a very high percentage for the population at that time). India had 5% mortality with over 12 million succumbing to Spanish Flu.
Spanish Flu – What is that?
Is it truly Spanish flu? It started in France and England. However, they both were at war and wanted to keep this covered. However, Spain being neutral, and news being public, it was reported transparently. It is a misnomer to call it Spanish flu. That is derisive, as Spain was neutral during WW I. It was World War I and soldiers were living in overcrowded barracks. It started in Etaples, France in 1916. It will similarly be wrong to construe that it was an element of French warfare because a similar disease was also observed in 1917 at Aldershot, England. Then too, it was commonly thought to have jumped the animal-human borders as pigs and poultry were a mainstay at these hospitals.
It never occurred to them that they would take the Influenza bug along with them while traveling back home. A disease that once was restricted to specific geography quickly became ubiquitous and spread out indiscriminately. As John Barry said, in New York Times, “None alone provides great protection, but the hope was that if most people followed most of the advice most of the time, the interventions could significantly reduce the spread of the disease, or “flatten the curve,” a phrase now all too familiar. This may sound simple, but it is not. As with a diet, people know what to eat but often stray; here straying can kill”.
(Picture Credit – CDC illustration on influenza virus. Influenza A viruses are classified by subtypes based on the properties of their hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N) surface proteins. There are 18 different HA subtypes and 11 different NA subtypes. Subtypes are named by combining the H and N numbers – e.g., A(H1N1), A(H3N2). Click on the image to enlarge the picture).
It almost engulfed an entire then connected globe. However, the definition of connectedness, which was ignored then and which is ignored now too, is common to both the Spanish Flu and COVID-19. An estimated 500 million people worldwide were affected. It was a rudimentary period in the evolution of medicine and of course, there were no vaccines or medicines to treat the patients. The findings were, as usual, generally, healthy young adults succumbed to the illness, contrary to most diseases that took the life of the young and old. Today, we call this onslaught of infection against those with a mature immune system as Cytokine Storm. Then, we only knew it killed the young. Then too, people used hand washing, isolation, masks, avoiding public places, and quarantining those ill/suspected ill. It ravaged the economy and disrupted public life, basic civic services like garbage clean up, and postal delivery government services etc. were compromised. There was no one to cremate dead bodies; garbage was flying astray across the streets, no one to light neither lamp posts nor sufficient people to deliver the mail. City offices started digging mass graves, closed schools, public places including theaters. The truth was not transparent, trust in authorities deprecated. Then too, there was a lurking fear that ““civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth.” Reopening then was marked by a rebound in cases.
Rebound after Reopening
In its intense and acute form, the malady lasted for almost 15 months, from the spring of 1918 to the summer of 1919. It is said that this pandemic Flu almost killed 50-100 million people. Today, we call that Influenza A or H1N1 flu. H1N1 kept lingering, again due to mutations, for 38 years until it was controlled with specific therapies.
Antigenic Shift versus Antigenic Drift
Influenza A and B, each has 8 genes and a variation keeps happening to make a combination each year. As investigations reveal, the 1918 pandemic started with an H1N1 strain, that kept mutating. At this moment, it is wise to understand the meaning of H and N, H stands for those proteins which are required to latch on the cell (inside) and release themselves (N proteins) when mature to infect other cells. This protein structure keeps changing slightly, called antigenic drift. Sometimes, the virus mutates significantly with major changes in the structure of the H and N proteins, called an Antigenic shift.
Fast Forward 2019-20 – Comparison and Contrast
It is commonly accepted believe that SARS CoV2 jumped the animal-human barrier. It too spread out from densely populated places. Like COVID-19, it took the world by surprise. No one anticipated that the global burden of death would be over 250, 000 in just 4 months. Then, there was no medicine and here again, we have no specific remedy. The mechanism of death was the same, cytokine storm prevailed then and it is reigning now. It took away the young healthy adults then, however, it is incapacitating for those young adults now, though the mortality is very high in the elderly. Then too, we used masks, isolation, and barrier protection, which we see as the mainstay of stopping the virus within the communities. We call it social distancing, back then, they called it crowding control.
What have we learned?
We see a commonality in the pattern. The biological behavior of the bugs is not changeable. The human response was almost the same. We respond exactly the same way how we responded then. We distanced from each other, we realized, it was spreading through our breath and mouth, so we used masks in 1918 and again, we are using masks. Is there anything wrong with this?
Quotable quotes from Christopher Nichols, Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University –
“The questions they asked then are the questions being asked now,”
“And while it’s very rare that history provides a simple straightforward lesson for the present, this is one of those instances. The Spanish flu tells us that social distancing works. And it works best if we act early, act fast and stick together — and base our decisions not on social or economic concerns, but on science and data and facts.”