Spanish flu, smallpox and corona: how and when does a pandemic end?

  • fromMartina Lippl


When is the corona pandemic over? Does a pandemic even end? The Spanish flu or smallpox show what we have learned from history.

Munich – Infectious diseases are as different as their pathogens. If a disease or pathogen spreads across continents worldwide – according to the definition, there is a pandemic. This is currently the case Coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 is the case. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared Corona a pandemic. But when is the corona pandemic over?

“The end of a pandemic is not clearly defined,” says Rachael Piltch-Loeb, researcher and fellow of the Emergency Preparedness Research, Evaluation & Practice Program at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health im National Geographic. Even within the scientific community one would get very different answers to this question.

Some pandemics ended because the disease was eradicated

Global epidemics have plagued humanity in the past. These mass diseases passed in different ways. Smallpox, for example, has been eradicated – that is an ideal case. Some others even stayed, but despite their danger, they have lost the horror of the population.

According to medical historians, pandemics can end in two ways – either medically or socially:

  • The medical end occurs when the number of sick people drops sharply. Either because many people have become immune to the pathogen as a result of an infection, or because vaccinations or drugs have been developed.
  • The social end of a pandemic is when the disease continues to spread but is no longer perceived as a threat. This mainly happens when an infectious disease appears manageable with medication. People are no longer afraid of the disease and learn to live with it.

Smallpox – one of the deadliest pandemics

Smallpox has been considered eradicated worldwide since 1979. Variola viruses have transmitted smallpox for centuries. They are considered to be one of the deadliest pandemics. In the 20th century alone, up to 500 million people died of smallpox (also known as pox in this country). The last official person with smallpox was a cook in Somalia in 1977. Incidentally, the most famous smallpox sufferers include Mozart, Haydn, Goethe and Beethoven.

But how could smallpox be eradicated? The Variola virus is only transmitted from person to person through droplet infection. It had no intermediate animal host in which to survive. A point that made smallpox eradication possible. Anyone who was once infected with smallpox and survived was immune to the pathogen for life. In addition, smallpox symptoms were so clear that infected people could easily be identified and isolated.

In 1967, in the fight against smallpox, the WHO started a global vaccination campaign with a potent, easy-to-use active ingredient. 13 years later, the WHO declared the world smallpox free.

Spanish flu – worst pandemic yet

the Spanish flu from 1918/1919 was the worst pandemic ever known to mankind. In a short period of time, it claimed the lives of at least 50 million people around the world. Those who survived often suffered from chronic fatigue, depression, and neurological disorders for weeks. In June 1919 the pandemic subsided.

It ended medically, but also socially. Many people had built up immunity. Anyone who became infected with H1N1 in later years no longer became life-threatening. To do this, the deadly virus changed – weakened. People also wanted to quickly forget the flu epidemic and were ready for a fresh start after the First World War, security measures were officially lifted.

“Epidemics come in waves and at some point the waves decrease again”

“Many died, many were immune. The pathogen changed, ”suspects medical historian Jörg Vögele in an interview with ntv. “That is the essence of such acute infectious disease epidemics. They come in waves and at some point the waves wane again. “

The causative agent – the H1N1 virus – still exists today. It belongs to the influenza A viruses. Every year it mostly moves as a weakened pathogen from continent to continent around the world. It changes from year to year and is then differently dangerous. Devastating flu waves are by no means a thing of the past. Major flu pandemics are also known in the 20th century:

  • “Spanish flu” (virus H1N1) from 1918 and 1919
  • “Asia Virus” – (Virus H2N2) by 1957 and 1968
  • “Hong Kong flu” (H3N2 virus) from 1968 and 1970
  • “Swine Flu” from 2009 and 2010

Covid-19 – When does the corona pandemic end

When will the corona pandemic end? A question that preoccupies many.

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On December 31, 2019, the WHO said it was informed of cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in the Chinese city of Wuhan. As a result, on January 7, 2020, the Chinese authorities identified a novel coronavirus as the cause, provisionally known as “2019-nCoV”, later as Sars-CoV-2 was designated. The pathogen is transmitted very easily from person to person through droplet infection and aerosols. So far, 4.8 million deaths have been recorded worldwide.

Vaccines are now available against the virus that reduce the risk of serious disease and death from Covid-19. In view of the new variants, vaccination does not 100 percent protect against infection. According to experts, there will therefore be no herd immunity. That is also never been the goal, explained virologist Christian Drosten recently on the NDR podcast. The virus will stay.

According to medical historian Vögele, however, a social end to the coronavirus pandemic can already be felt. Schools and universities are back in classroom teaching, there are doubts about the mask requirement. Almost every day there are demands for a “Freedom Day“- the end of all Corona measures – loudly. “After the pandemic is before the pandemic,” warns Vögele loudly ntv. The next pathogen may already be ready. “And if it is more aggressive and more lethal, it will be a great challenge.” (ml)

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