Today, when the world is close to 2 million deaths caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, according to the statistics of the World Health Organization, the equally catastrophic figures come to the mind of humanity that, almost a century ago, it left the so-called ‘influenza or Spanish flu.’ During the Spanish Flu pandemic, governments and societies made mistakes that unfortunately have been repeated in the current health crisis caused by COVID-19. That is why it is worth reviewing the flu statistics, the similarities and the contrasts of two epidemics that have affected humanity so strongly.
1918 Spanish Flu Statistics
The Spanish Flu killed between 1918 and 1920, more than 40 million people around the world. The exact figure for the pandemic, which is considered the most devastating in history, is unknown since, at that time, the ability to obtain accurate figures and generate flu statistics was limited. A century later, it is still not known what the origin of this epidemic that did not understand borders or social classes was. Although some researchers claim that it began in France in 1916 or China in 1917, many studies place the first cases at the military base at Fort Riley, United States, on March 4, 1918.
It was the first pandemic caused by the A virus of the H1N1 subtype, and it became the third most lethal of the 20th century since it concentrated high mortality in a short period. Unlike other flu epidemics, which basically affected children and the elderly, many of the victims were young and healthy adults between 20 and 40 years old, and also animals, mainly dogs and cats. Symptoms were high fever, earache, body tiredness, occasional diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as sometimes breathing difficulties and nosebleeds.
SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus is a virus that appeared to have started in China. Later it spread to all the continents of the world, which caused a pandemic. Currently, Europe and America are still the most affected. This new virus is known as COVID-19.
People with COVID-19 usually have the following signs and symptoms:
- Cough and/or fever and/or headache.
- Accompanied by at least one of the following: throat pain or burning, red eyes, muscle or joint pain (general malaise).
- The most severe cases involve difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
- A loss of sense of taste or smell
Comparison and Flu Statistics
In 1918 almost three times as many people died as today (about 22 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants), and life expectancy was 41 years. At that time, public health had not been developed, health technology was conspicuous by its absence, vaccines were only taking their first steps, hygiene and health conditions were not yet the best, and a large part of Spanish society still lived in poverty and illiteracy. Although mortality was already falling thanks to the first medical advances, contagious disease pandemics, such as cholera in 1885 or the Spanish in 1918, still found favorable terrain to roam freely and wreak havoc on already physically weak citizens. A century later, the situation is diametrically opposite: life expectancy has doubled to 83 years, we have a consolidated public health system, care for the sick and elderly is the order of the day, scientific and technological advances save millions of lives all over the world and, in the absence of adequate medical supplies, world trade, and globalization allow importing it at record speed.
The differences in the social contexts of each pandemic make the flu statistics different as well. It is difficult to be certain of the data because a hundred years ago, epidemiological registration methods and the censorship caused by the war made the flow of information difficult. However, it is estimated that the global mortality rate for the 1918 flu is between 10% and 20% of those infected, unlike the current pandemic, which has a mortality rate close to 2%.
The Spanish Flu had a very high morbidity rate, infecting more than half of the world population, and taking into account its high mortality rate, it is estimated that between 3% and 6% of the world population died. These deaths were not evenly distributed throughout the planet. In India alone, about 15 million people died, while in Great Britain they were 228,000. The United States lost half a million inhabitants, and indigenous peoples of the Pacific or the Arctic lost up to 90% of their population.
Having conclusive data on the current COVID-19 pandemic is not easy since around half a million new cases are registered every day around the world. Today more than 82 million people have already been infected, of which about 2 million have died. That is, only 1% of the population has been infected, and 0.025% has died. These are figures much lower than those presented in the 1918 pandemic. In 1918, the war contributed to the rapid spread of the virus with the transport of soldiers and the migration of people. Today, international trade and travel have caused the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease to reach every corner of the planet.
Humanity has been through, recovered, and survived several pandemics in the past that were much worse than what we are going through now. Today we have a chance to get a treatment that can stop this virus before it spreads to the entire population.