The pandemic of 1918 – Lest we forget

By James Marsden, Kansas State University Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety, reprinted from

(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)

The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 – 1919 caused more deaths than any other outbreak in human history. In a world that had about a quarter of today’s population, it’s been estimated that 50 – 100 million people died during the course of the outbreak.

The pandemic affected 28% of all Americans, killing some 675,000. Most deaths occurred during a sixteen week period from mid-September to mid-December, 1918. The most vulnerable were healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

We may never know exactly how and where outbreak started. However, many scholars believe it originated in rural Haskell County, Kansas. It happened during the First World War at a time when American soldiers were being mobilized and sent to fight in Europe. The first wave of the outbreak occurred in Kansas and in military camps throughout the US. At least 43,000 US servicemen died from the influenza outbreak.

Despite the growing epidemic at training camps, during the spring of 1918, the problem wasn’t acknowledged and no steps were taken to control the spread of the virus in the United States or around the world. The mass movement of servicemen aboard ships facilitated the diffusion of the disease. As a result, the influenza outbreak spread to Europe, Asia and throughout the rest of the world. When the war ended and the American servicemen returned, a second wave of the outbreak occurred during the period September – November, 1918. A third wave occurred in early 1919. By the time the pandemic subsided, more than one fifth of the world’s population had been infected.

In 2006, scientists deduced the complete genomic sequence of the influenza virus using frozen lung tissue from 1918 victims. They determined that the influenza virus genes were “avian-like” and that the virus is the “common ancestor of human and classical swine H1N1 influenza viruses. Over the past several years, similar viruses have emerged and in rare cases have infected people.

Today, we are in the midst of another potential pandemic in West Africa. The Ebola virus poses great risks to human and carries even a much higher mortality rate than the Spanish Influenza virus.

The public health infrastructure in the United States and around the world has improved enormously since 1918 and it’s unlikely that the events that led to the Spanish influenza pandemic will be repeated.

However, looking back on the catastrophic pandemic of 1918 – 1919 should remind everyone that public health policy should not be politicized. The consequences of failure are too terrible to comprehend.
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