Covid-19: Echos from the past, Lessons from the 1918 spanish flu.

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The 1918 pandemic flu was a deadly influenza pandemic that lasted from January 1918 to December 1920, infected over 500 million people and killed another 50 million giving it a seat among the deadliest pandemic in history, close to the black death pandemic.

While it was named “the Spanish flu ” the virus did not originate from Spain. The first case was reported from the United States but due to the ongoing World War I, the military imposed heavy censorship on news to maintain the morale. Newspapers in Spain were however free to report the flu due to Spain neutral status during the war, this therefore ensured that the first news of the flu came from Spain hence the name Spanish flu.

Unlike other influenza outbreak, the Spanish flu killed the young more than the old, this peculiar phenomenon was attributed to the virus ability to trigger a cytokine storm or over reaction of the immune system, the young and healthy having stronger immune system had stronger overreaction which ended up being fatal, the opposite was true to the old and the weak.

Infection and Death Toll

The flu infected around 500 million people representing 25 per cent of the global population in 1918, with a mortality rate of 10 percent, 50 million people died. The flu was deadlier than HIV, killing more people in 24 weeks than those HIV killed in 24 years.

Around the world, the flu killed 12 million people in India according to 2009 estimates by Arnold, in Japan 390,000 people died while another 23 million were infected, in Indonesia 1.5 million people died while in Samoa 22 percent of the population died within two months.

In Iran, approximately 2.4 million people died and in New Zealand around 9000 people perished within six weeks.

The United States had 675,000 deaths and 28% nationwide infection. The native Americans were worst hit. The flu wiped out the entire Inuit and Alaskan native Americans. In Canada, 50,000 people died.

In Britain and Brazil, 250,000 and 300,000 people died respectively, among the dead in Brazil was their president Rodrigues Alves. 400,000 died in France while in Ghana, a total of 100,000 perished.

The future Emperor of Ethiopia, Tafari Makonnen survived the flu though his physician perished while taking care of him, around 10,000 people died in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Why so many people died

The flu had a 50 per cent infection rate and the symptoms were too severe due to the immune system overreaction as a result of cytokine Storm.

The unusually severe symptoms also led to misdiagnosis as many doctors prescribed treatment for cholera, dengue or typhoid. The misdiagnosis contributed to thousands of deaths as the influenza continued ravaging the body uninterrupted.

The symptoms of the flu

Those suffering from the flue bled from their mucus membranes such as nose, stomach and intestines. A few also bled from the ears and the skin.

The major cause of death was however the bleeding and filling of lungs with blood as a result of the virus direct attack to the lungs.

Reason for it’s widespread

The virus spread was aided by the movement of troops from one battlefield to another. The disease was also carried home by the seriously sick soldiers transported from the battlefield to their home countries for treatment.

The tight spaces in the trenches and transport trains led rapid spread of the virus among soldiers who later passed it on to civilians they interacted with.

Socioeconomic effects

The pandemic led to collapse of many entertainment and service industries while health care Industry gained tremendously due to the high demand for health services.

Entire families were wiped and the dead piled up in makeshift morgues, due to shortage of medical staffs.

How it compares to Covid-19

The novel coronavirus currently ravaging the world, the Spanish flu was new in 1918 hence there were no known vaccines or drugs to treat it.

In order to limit it’s spread, governments ordered people to wear masks, banned large gatherings, shit down schools, theatres and businesses.

In the middle of the pandemic, fear gripped the medical sector, in pursuit for a cure or fame, the US surgeon general, Navy and the journal of American Medical association reccomended the use of Aspirin.

Medical personnel prescribed 30 grams of the drug per day in order to treat the severe symptoms of the flu. The high dosage led to thousands of deaths as a result of Aspirin poison.

The usage of Aspirin in 1918 is similar to the usage of chloroquine in the treatment of Covid-19, already experts are warning that the antimalarial drug could have adverse side effects including cardiac arrest.

The over dose of aspirin led to more deaths perhaps more than was necessary, this could be compared to the thousands of deaths that have occurred in Iran after victims of Covid -19 chose to self-treat themselves with alcohol after unfounded claims of whiskey having the ability to kill the virus.

As it is happening today in Brazil under president Bolsonaro , government officials of Philadelphia downplayed the seriousness of the virus and refused to ban large gatherings, in the end the city went ahead with the liberty loan parade on September 18th bring together tens of thousands of people against the social distancing guidelines, the disease spread like bushfires.

As a result of the Parade, 1000 people died of the flu in Philadelphia and another 200,000 got infected in 10 days, by March 1919, 15,000 people were dead in Philadelphia.

The end of the flu.

Without the advantage of technology and advanced research that we have in this century, the Spanish flu ended on its own after the infected died or developed immunity against the virus. The uninfected kept away from the infected, avoided crowded places, wore masks and developed high standards of hygiene, those actions kept them a live and with that the human race dodged the bullet of extinction.

John Otieno

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