It's been 100 years since the world's last deadliest flu pandemic. Experts warn that another one is inevitable, but are we ready?
- 100 years ago, the Spanish Flu killed over 50 million people.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 80,000 Americans died of the flu last winter.
- Experts stress that the world needs to take precautions and prepare for the next pandemic.
Humans have been fighting the influenza virus for millenia. We've discovered new strains throughout the years and also devised greater methods for eradicating them along the way. But on the 100th year anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic, it's more important now than ever that we look back at one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever faced.
Our global village is tied together in such a way that it makes containing a localized infection nearly impossible. Through air, freight-train and onwards through land and sea, the most populous and densely packed cities in the world are now just a stone's throw away.
The possibility that another epidemic could sweep through the world and claim millions of lives is no surprise to the experts. After all, it's happened before.
History of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918
Let's look back at how the Spanish flu first got its start.
It was the fall of 1918 and the First Great War in Europe was just winding down. Americans had been shipped overseas and were helping assist the Allies as they fought against the Germans. Soldiers around the globe dug out and wintered through trenches in horrible and brutal conditions. They had probably thought they'd seen the worst of things by this point.
Lurking just somewhere over the horizon, however, was one of the deadliest flus the world would ever face.
Over a third of the world's population became infected. Erupting in pockets around the globe the outbreaks swept through Asia, Europe, Africa and America by bustling trade routes. Many also suspected rapid troop movement assisted in the spread of the disease. Around 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the two year pandemic.
The intensity and speed in which the pandemic struck was unfathomable at the time. With over 500 million people infected and an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide, the global death toll eclipsed even World War I casualties. The disease is not "Spanish" in origin per say, but because of wartime censorship in other countries, Spain was the first to report of the pandemic.
Our most recent flu seasons pale in comparison to the great plight wrought from the Spanish flu.
Latest trends in America’s flu seasons
For the most part, vaccinations, antibiotics and better global hygiene has drastically reduced the effects of influenza and other associated diseases. But viruses never rest — and they never stop evolving.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that a preliminary figure of last year's winter flu season was around 80,000 deaths. This figure may be revised, but it's unlikely the numbers will go down. Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a CDC flu expert, believes that the deaths were higher than usual because there are both more Americans and more elderly people now.
Luckily, Jernigan believes that next year's flu season is stacking up to be both a milder strain and also more receptive to vaccination. "We don't know what's going to happen," he said, "but we're seeing more encouraging signs than we were early last year."
While we might be all right for the upcoming flu season. Others warn that a hidden virus could jumpstart a new global pandemic.
The U.S is not ready for a major pandemic
One of the worst case scenarios in the short term, could be the release of a hidden, lethal and highly infectious flu strain that breaks out into a crowded city. According to the John Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, this would be devastating for an unprepared city that lacked a strong public health infrastructure.
A fast moving virus could hitch a ride from one city to a next and spread internationally before health officials even knew what hit humanity. Scientists at John Hopkins believe that avian influenza viruses pose the greatest risk if they evolve into deadlier strains. Amesh Adalja from the Center of Healthy Security at John Hopkins states: "In terms of pandemic potential, an avian influenza virus is thought to be a likely candidate, based on prior pandemics."
Yet, there are safeguards that didn't exist 100 years ago we can use to preemptively ward off a potential flu pandemic.
For example we can:
- Improve vaccine research and deployment. Funding for high-priority vaccines is a must to create herd immunity.
- Increase pandemic preparation funding. Public health officials need to be able to deal with a multiple of infected at once.
- Create a global response network that can quickly intervene in a pandemic. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) needs a counterpart that can take action once any kind of pandemic has been declared.
The more we do to combat these diseases now, the less risk we have for another worldwide pandemic later.
Danger is at hand, and you may have voted for it. Science educator Bill Nye weaves a passionate argument for the importance of science literacy in a country's elected leaders.
It’s not unusual to hear someone openly say that they can’t do math at all; that they can’t figure out the percentage to tip on a bill. If someone said that chemistry hurts their brain and they can’t even look at an equation, or that they have no idea how a certain part of the human body does what it does, that wouldn’t be too surprising. These are usually light-hearted statements that go down well – many of us would sympathize, nod and say: yeah, me too.
But turn the tables and imagine someone announcing jovially they can’t read words that are over 3 syllables, or that a certain sentence is too beyond them to even try. That wouldn’t be considered funny. En masse, we’d raise our brows and say: Excuse me?
The ignorance involved in both scenarios is comparable, but the shirking of effort when it comes to science and math is so normalized we don’t always catch ourselves.
This is the bee in Bill Nye’s bonnet today. An engineer by origin, he wants science literacy to be a national priority so that people can understand that the daily magic around them every day – all the technology, medicine, and innovation that makes our lives easier, isn't some kind of wizardry – it's cold, hard science. Understanding the way things work, from the basics to a minute level, is so profoundly important to a country’s progress and its citizen's health and daily lives. As an example, Nye looks at the spread of a disease like Ebola in North America compared to Africa; the education levels about how germs are transmitted corresponds directly to the amount of deaths from this terrible illness. Understanding basic concepts like bacteria and hygiene saves lives.
Nye goes on to make an interesting point about some of the U.S.’s elected officials and their fluctuating stance on science. Those who panicked about Ebola – rightly so – and implemented preventative measures take a very different approach when it comes to a crisis such as climate change. Here, the U.S. has failed to make meaningful change and start measures to look out for the future. Nye also points to officials who cut funding to the Center for Disease Control, which demonstrates a serious lack of literacy about the nature of infectious disease. The Spanish Flu of the early 20th century killed an estimated 20-50 million people – even at its most conservative estimate, that’s more than all the deaths in WWI. In Nye’s words, cutting disease research is "not where you save your money, Congress!"
There is also a general mistrust of science among civilians and leaders, and unfortunately shady science practices, such as the sugar industry buying off Harvard scientists to write negative studies focusing on fats while omitting research that would hurt the sugar industry, does a lot of damage to the public perception of scientific method. Those stories make it a little easier to believe scientists can be bought, and therefore that science as a whole can be doubted.
But science largely stands strong, and research by Dan Kahan at Yale University shows that those with the strongest views tend to have the greatest scientific literacy. Kahan asked 1,540 Americans to rate the severity of climate change as a global threat on a scale of zero to ten. Interestingly those that rated it closest to zero or closest to ten had the highest levels of science comprehension.
That middle ground proves to be a dangerous place because the greatest sin in science is to not ask questions, and not challenge conventional wisdom. That’s the whole point of scientific enquiry, but dismissing it or failing to understand it really is a crime, especially when you trace it to the tangible cost of human life from increasing natural disasters and preventable contagions. This idea is perhaps expressed best by Canadian-American physician and Nobel Laureate Charles Huggins, who said: "Nature can refuse to speak but she cannot give a wrong answer." Science, when not corrupt, works as nature's translator. We have to trust it, not be blindly skeptical.
Bill Nye has spent his life promoting science education and while here he is visibly frustrated by this high-level mistrust of science in the U.S., another famous champion of science, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, brings reinforcement in the form of optimism. Tyson recently said to the Wall Street Journal: "Science is being born into public consciousness in a very big way, for the first time. And we’re doing it on the shoulders of those who struggled to get it going in that regard. I look forward to the impact it could have on the 21st century, where we have a next generation of people who only know science literacy as a fundamental part of an educated citizenry."
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.