Spanish flu (La Presse)

The 1918 Spanish Flu and Covid-19

Almost 102 years ago in January, 1918 as the first world war was approaching its end, an influenza virus swept across the world killing tens of millions of people. The 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic was from the same family of viruses as the 2009 swine flu, as both are different forms of the H1N1 influenza virus. The Spanish Influenza killed 50,000,000 to 100,000,000 people around the world, however, whereas H1NI killed an estimated 151,000 to 575,000 globally.

In 1918 Spanish Flu News Was Censored

To maintain morale of the soldiers on the battlefield reports on the number of infections and deaths were suppressed in USA, UK, France and Germany. Only journalists in the neutral Spain provided comprehensive reports on the virus. These reports coupled with the growing number of victims in Spain ⁠— among them King Alfonso XIII ⁠— finally lifted the lid on the severity of the Influenza virus. The reports of the serious disease from Spain made people wrongly believe that the virus originated from Spain thus it was named the “Spanish flu”. Among its first causalities  was British prime minister David Lloyd George.

We saw a similar lack of transparency in the early days of the Covid-19 in Wuhan China when Dr. Li Wenliang who tried to raise the alarm on December 30 of last year, was silenced by the Communist Chinese government for spreading what the police called unsubstantiated “rumors.” China’s Public Security Bureau even went so far as forcing him to sign a letter stating that he had made “false comments” and had “severely disturbed the social order.”

Despite identifying the first case of Covid-19 on December 8, 2019 Wuhan officials only began screening measures on January 14, 2020 and refused to release any further information on  the disease. According to a study from the University of Southampton, early detection of coronavirus and isolation of cases could have prevented 95% of infections.

Most Countries Thought It Was No Big Deal

When the Spanish flu was first announced in May 1918, many countries never took it seriously and were sluggish in their response. New Zealand ⁠— which was slow to impose restrictions on ships leaving and entering its ports ⁠— recorded  9,000 deaths  within two months by late 1918 . According to reports no other event had killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time. The virus also spread to the nearby pacific islands such as Samoa where they triggered deadly outbreaks.

This sluggish response was evident in the early days of the coronavirus when organisation and countries downplayed its impact. In January as Wuhan became the epicenter of the rising cases of Covid-19 infections , global health experts were shocked by the reluctance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare the virus a global health emergency. Many began to question how the organization makes its decisions and the politics involved.

Governments were not spared either. It appears many had underestimated the severity of the virus. Speaking on the BBC former regional director of public Health England Professor John Ashton criticized Boris Johnson’s government for failing to take advance measures saying, “If this now spreads the way it looks likely to spread , there will not be enough hospital beds and people will have to be nursed at home . We should have gotten a grip on this a month ago,” he said. According the latest figures a total of 1,140 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the UK . However the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has estimated that there are between 5,000 to 10,000 people infected in the UK.

Why Has Coronavirus Not Infected Much of Africa?

So far the novel coronavirus has failed to gain a foothold in Africa something that has baffled scientists. This is totally different to the 1918 when third world countries in Africa and Asia bore the biggest brunt of the Spanish flu. While the average mortality rate was about 2% in the developed world, in India it was 6% with 18.5 million deaths , Egypt 6% with 138,000 deaths. Recent data estimates that between 50 to 100 million people died of the flu between 1918 and 1919. At the moment scientist are estimating that around 10 million people will contract the coronavirus over the next two years.

Where Did the Spanish Flu Originate?

While the origin of the Covid-19 virus is well known as Wuhan, China, different hypotheses on the origin of the Spanish flu have been put across by epidemiologists. One was that the virus originated from China despite the country being one of those less affected by the virus. In reaching their conclusion the researchers  claimed that the low numbers of cases in China was because Chinese had already acquired immunity to the virus after suffering from it.

Lending credence to this theory was a report by historian Mark Humphries who claimed that Chinese laborers working among British and French troops could have been responsible for transmitting the virus to Europe .
However a report published in the Journal of Chinese Medical Association (JMA)in 2016 ruled out this possibility, instead saying that it had evidence that the virus had existed among Europeans troops before breaking out in 1918.

This conclusion by (JMA) almost tallies with a hypothesis by virologist John Oxford who claimed the virus had originated from a British military installation in France. According to Oxford, since the military facility had a piggery and poultry , the virus migrated from poultry then to the pigs before being contracted by human beings. Other theories included the one by Andrew Price-Smith who claimed the virus originated from Austria.

Nevertheless the severity of the Spanish flu really astonished scientists. The overcrowding in military barracks and warships and massive movements of soldiers during the war provided a conducive environment for the virus to thrive. Those infected were advised to gaggle salt water and to isolate themselves. Some of these measures such as isolation are already being applied today in dealing with coronavirus.

Understanding the Flu and Coronavirus

One thing worth noting as well is that flu caused by influenza and COVID 19 caused by the new coronavirus , are both infectious respiratory illnesses . “Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses,” says Dr. Lisa Magaragakis director of infection prevention at John Hopkins. Both can cause fever, body aches, fatigue and pneumonia. While the influenza and coronavirus can be transmitted in similar ways, the latter can be transmitted through the air. “This means that tiny droplets remaining in the air could cause disease in other seven after the ill person is no longer near.”

Dr. Tom Frieden a former director of theb US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observes that “there are similarities and differences between Covid-19 and the flu, but we know much less about the novel coronavirus.” In his opinion there are a lot we can learn from the flu to increase our chances of survival

Since both are virulent diseases, one technique that was used in dealing with the Spanish flu in 1918 could perhaps help. Medics realized that patients nursed in open air recovered faster than those nursed indoors. According to Dr Richard Hobday, an independent researcher, the Open-air was widely used on Spanish flu patients in critical conditions. “Patients were put outside in their beds to breathe fresh outdoor air . Or they were nursed in cross ventilated wards with the windows open day and night,” he said. Hobday further argues that fresh air is a disinfectant and, sunlight inactivates viruses.

Almost similar views were expressed by Dr. John Nicholls a pathology professor at the University of Hong Kong, who said coronavirus fears sunlight, temperature and humidity. “Sunlight will cut the virus’s ability to grow in half , so the half life will be 2.5 minutes, and in the dark it’s about 13 to 20 minutes. Sunlight is really good at killing viruses,” he told AccuWeather.

Despite these theories Dr. Frieden has warned that  Covid-19 is different from flu and the world must respond differently.