March 23, 2020
Is COVID-19 the Spanish Flu 2.0? A Historical Reflection
According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. The world is no stranger to pandemics, as many have travelled around the globe in the past. Some of these pandemics include the Bubonic Plague and Smallpox. However, the most acknowledged pandemic that the world has experienced is the Spanish Flu of 1918 and is known to be the deadliest pandemic to hit globally.
COVID-19 is being compared to the Spanish Flu as it is currently spreading quickly throughout the world, causing obvious concern. However, does COVID-19 bear any resemblance to the Spanish Flu and a harbinger of what is to come?
The Spanish Flu
Though the particular strain of influenza in the Spanish Flu remains unknown, the Flu was initially observed in Europe, the Americas, and some parts of Asia before spreading on a global scale. However, the name may suggest a regional isolation but that was not the case. Spain was hit the hardest during this pandemic, hence the name.
An estimated 500 million individuals worldwide were affected, resulting in 20 million to 50 million deaths, including 675,000 Americans, and around 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians. During the initial stages, the symptoms experienced by those affected were mild and recoverable. However, during the second wave of influenza in 1918, it became more deadly, causing a fluid buildup within the lungs, which caused suffocation. The symptoms included but were not limited to headaches and tiredness, dry cough, loss of appetite, stomach issues, excessive sweating, and pneumonia.
The COVID-19 virus originated from Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and spread in a similar fashion as the Spanish Flu. The country to date most affected apart from China is Italy. Italy has now surpassed China in the number of deaths. COVID-19 is considered to be a zoonotic virus, which means that it can transmit itself from animals to humans. The infection can spread through respiratory droplets produced from the respiratory system by infected individuals. The symptoms include respiratory afflictions such as a dry cough, fever, shortness of breath, and difficulties with breathing. However, as symptoms progress, it can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and death. The pandemic has thus far affected over 300,000, resulting in over 15,000 deaths; however, over 90,000 individuals have recovered.
Are the diseases similar?
Aside from the global spread by all accounts, the diseases are very different – even the biological signs are different. Surprisingly, the Spanish Flu of 1918 affected individuals aged between 20 years to 40 years old, respectively, rather than older individuals. A theory suggests that the older generation may have experienced a similar, more mild form of the Flu during the early stages of their life, ultimately building immunity. However, comparing this to COVID-19, the individuals that are most affected currently by this virus are older individuals. Further, given the absence of modern medical technology understanding the disease and how to minimize its impact was sadly not available at that time. This included the lack of vaccines and antibiotics to fight against the infection. Only non-pharmaceutical interventions were available at the time, such as isolation, quarantine, disinfectants, and personal hygiene.
Having said that to decrease the spread of COVID-19, government officials may adopt some of the same tactics from over a hundred years ago to reduce the spread and flatten the curve. Government officials across the globe believe the best form of preventing the spread of the virus is to shut down schools, theatres, sporting events and other places in which large crowds convene. Allowing employees to work from home or to reduce company hours decreases reliance on public transportation and facilitates the practice of social distancing.
Although all efforts are being implemented in order to mitigate the virus from reaching a high as similar to the Spanish Flu, experts state that COVID-19 will make a comeback when individuals resume their regular routines. A report published by Imperial College London noted that the suppression of the virus needs to be practiced intermittently or until a vaccine is made available, hopefully in twelve to eighteen months. The Spanish Flu lasted twenty-three months.
Scientists hope the virus may be eliminated/slowed by late May if social distancing and quarantining are practiced diligently. However, if these precautions are taken lightly, there may be a need for two to four more rounds of mitigation until a vaccine is introduced, which could happen by the fall of 2021.
Overall, as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, the best measures to take to prevent the pandemic from being as fatal as the Spanish Flu is to practice social distancing and continue many of the extensive measures in place currently. The good news is we see in China and other countries like Taiwan that measures are working. We also understand much more about this disease than they did about the Spanish Flu. The diseases are also very different and it is fair to conclude that COVID-19 is not the Spanish Flu 2.0. So, there are reasons for optimism, as highlighted in another of my blogs – Ten COVID-19 Reasons for Optimism.
Thank you for reading. Stay safe.