The corona pandemic is little comparable to the Spanish flu

The barbershop at the University of Berkeley in California was moved to the streets to curb Spanish flu.
Picture: Science Photo Library

No vaccine, no medication: much was similar when the Spanish flu raged in 1918. But the world was different at the time.

EIt was a historic low point of civilization, a menek for more than a hundred years of epidemic history – and yet hardly anyone had been interested in the Spanish flu. Just like for more than 12,000 other outbreaks of infection registered around the world since the 1980s. “Emerging diseases”, emerging pathogens such as the current Sars-CoV-2 virus, initially never get public attention. The World Health Organization receives suspicious transaction reports more than 7000 times a month, and in 2018, for the first time in a year, new variants of six of the eight most feared pathogens appeared at the same time. However, none of the viruses developed pandemic potential. By the end of 2019. So now that the number of infections is rising rapidly almost everywhere, there is fear that it could be bad. And that seems to be the hour of the Spanish flu. The Wikipedia entry is booming. Right?

Joachim Müller-Jung

Editor in the feature section, responsible for the “Nature and Science” department.

It is striking how reluctant virologists are to compare the new corona disease with the “mother of all modern pandemics”. Only once in the past few weeks has it been different: when it came to explaining why it is important to cope with the wave of infections, to gain time and to flatten and stretch the infection curve. In St. Louis, in the south of the United States, where the flu first appeared at that time, public events were canceled in the fall of the 1918 flu outbreak year and crowds were avoided. School closures also occurred in many cities. In contrast, there were parades in Philadelphia. The consequence: While the number of infected people in St. Louis grew slowly and never exceeded 50 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per day, in Philadelphia weeks before the number of the seriously ill was more than 250. Between 1918 and 1920, a total of between 25 and 100 million people around the world are said to have died of the flu. In three waves of infection, beginning in March 1918 in the United States, the H1N1 influenza avalanche rolled across America, Asia, and Europe. Since then, it has only been called Spanish because the military censorship that was common throughout the First World War did not suppress reporting on the devastating plague.

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