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Does current COVID-19 pandemic resemble the 1918 Spanish flu?

Does the current COVID-19 pandemic resemble the 1918 Spanish flu?

With the number of COVID-19 increasing every day, and no treatment available, governments’ options are limited to social distancing and learning from the past. Here’s how COVID-19 resembles the 1918 Spanish Flu. 


With several countries easing down the lockdown, concerns are being raised about the possible surge in cases. Scientists are working sleepless nights conducting trials to find a drug to fight this current pandemic. 

For years, pandemics have played crucial roles in shaping the world as we see today. Today experts are looking back at the Spanish Flu of 1918, to get some much-needed insights to tackle the current pandemic. 

A common beginning: 

The 1918 Spanish flu, was an influenza pandemic that began in Europe towards the end of World War I. Similar to COVID-19, the flu also was known to be a respiratory disease affecting the lungs and causing shortness of breath. 

Image Credit: Wikipedia / Screengrabs

The Spanish flu lasted over two years, affecting almost one-third of the world’s population at that time, marking its name in the history books. The flu was caused by the virus H1N1, the same virus to have caused the swine flu back in 2009. 

The first confirmed case was reported by Spain back then, nicknaming the disease to be Spanish Flu. Back then during World War I, the disease was noted to be underreported by several countries like France, UK, and Germany which minimized the numbers throughout the war. It is also possible that the reported death toll could have been considerably lower, due to the lack of reliable diagnostic tests at the time.

The 1918 pandemic was reported to be much more virulent than COVID-19, possibly due to the fact that the world was completely different back then. With the population then being quarter the size of what it is now, and vaccines not being invented, diseases were the main cause of mortality. 

Multiple waves of infection:

One of the biggest reasons for the 1918 flu to turn into a pandemic was the constant traveling across countries, especially troops due to the war. Throughout the months of April and May, the mortality rate due to the flu was quite similar to any other seasonal flu. But towards the end of the year, a more virulent strain emerged, unlike the COVID-19, Though many mutations of the novel virus, there has been no proof of a change in virulence anywhere. 

The 1918 flu pandemic, also referred to as the Spanish flu (Code name: “Disease XI” in the US and France) was the deadliest flu outbreak. A newspaper report on the Spanish flu in 1918. Left, a colorised image of the 1918 virus taken by a transmission electron microscope (TEM).
Image Credit: Wikipedia / C. Goldsmith – Public Health Image Library

Towards the second wave, the Spanish flu spread like wildfire, affecting everyone from young to healthy, such as the population serving the military, killing them in 24 hours. Despite the rapid spread and virulence, the disease disappeared rather abruptly. 

It is also interesting to note that, the novel COVID-19 seems to affect older adults, but not among children. Contrastingly, influenza back then also impacted young adults and children under the age of 5. It was more likely for an adult of 25 years to be more affected compared to a 74-year-old. To support this, several theories state that older adults may have developed an adaptive immunity when attacked by similar flu back in 1890. 

Lessons to remember from the past:

Governments should consider before lifting the lockdown anytime soon. During the Spanish flu pandemic, social distancing was not prioritized, causing a second wave of infections deadlier than the previous one. 

It has been 102 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, and though there have been some great strides in the field of medicine, both Spanish flu and COVID-19 share the same challenge- no vaccine or treatment. Back then, new medical remedies ranging from oils to herbs were administered to patients, but the efforts were in vain. In the current scenario, experts are scrambling to find treatments, but the bottom line is there is no clarity on the drugs which can be used to fight this pandemic. 

The past pandemics have also thrown light on the importance of surveillance. It is important to keep track of the affected and to trace contacts in helping the experts to understand and fight this novel virus. It might also be of consolation to remember that everything comes to an end and that modern medicines are an incredible source of an ally. 




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