Lessons From The 1918 Flu Pandemics


Day 146: Stay Safe Minnesota

Though the 1918 flu pandemic is often compared with the current COVID-19 pandemic because that was a worse case scenario but historians say they are vastly different.

Recently coronavirus pandemic deaths are being compared with the 1918 flu deaths in the US. Citing a recent from the medical journal JAMA the CNN reports that ‘deaths in New York City in the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic were comparable to deaths in the city at the peak of what’s considered the deadliest pandemic to date — the flu pandemic of 1918’.

“The 1918 flu is estimated to have infected a third of the world’s population and caused approximately 50 million deaths. Like with this pandemic, it impacted some communities more than others.”

1918 Flu Epidemic

According to the Washington Post, during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, more than 50 million people died from the virus and about one-third of the global population was infected. According to the John Hopkins University database, global deaths from the COVID-10 pandemic is just under one million with about 22 million infection.

“Using the 1918 flu pandemic to inform our response to covid-19 is only wise. It provides a template — overwhelming medical resources and aggressive actions — for what works to combat a dangerous and highly contagious virus like the coronavirus plaguing us now. But for the analogy to be effective, we must account for the war that made the 1918 flu so deadly. Only by doing so can we properly calibrate our response today.” – From the Washington Post.

Lessons from the 1918 Flu Pandemic

The MPRNews reporters Pranav Baskar and Emily Kwong write that NPR’s Short Wave had an interview with medical historian Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan to learn what the world of 1918 can teach us in 2020. During the interview, Dr Markel pointed out the following two lessons learned from the 1918 pandemic :

  • “One: early, layered and long, works. It’s not just 1918. We saw it in Mexico in 2009 (during the swine flu outbreak), and we’ve seen it elsewhere in experimental or modeling studies. We are certainly seeing it today in many countries and locally in many states.”
  • “Second: in 23 of the 43 (U.S.) cities we studied, [people in 1918] got restless after a while. They wanted the social distancing measures released; they wanted to go back to their normal lives. If you looked at the epidemic curve, it looked as if the cases and deaths were falling.”
  • “But, if they weren’t falling enough — if they weren’t low enough — and then you open things up, the virus was still circulating and you got a second hump to [the epidemic] curve and another upward tick in cases and deaths, sometimes worse than the initial hump of their epidemic curve.”

1918 is so vastly different. We’re using it as a benchmark because … it’s what the worst-case scenario [is] and we have a lot of data on it. But the country is [now] different. [..] We have social media so people could tell their stories in ways that they could never communicate back in 1918. But we also have a leadership situation that has never been seen before.

Dr Howard Markel, Medical Historian at the University of Michigan (source: MPRNews)
Coronavirus Pandemic Watch

According to the MDH latest tally (as of Aug 19, 11 a.m.) the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota are 66,618 (out of 1,308,264 tested) with 1,738 deaths. According to Johns Hopkins database (as of Aug 19, 5:27 p.m.) there are 5,523,826 confirmed covid19 infection with 172,945 deaths. Globally the covid19 virus has infected 22,252,446 with 783,825 deaths.