One of the interesting things about being a historian is that your ears often perk up at minor news stories that relate to your interests which other people miss. It is only because of my historical proclivities that I noted a story sometime last year about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
Medical experts had always been stumped by how that epidemic affected healthy young persons who are usually the most able to fight off a virus. Instead, in 1918, they dropped like flies in the primes of their lives. Recently, researchers had gone back to look at the data once more to try and come up with a better hypothesis to explain this than generation-skipping resistance. They noted that the symptoms of the victims resembled bacterial infections rather than viruses. After going back and examining preserved tissue from victims, they were able to determine that these actually had died from a bacterial infection — bacterial pneumonia, to be specific. The patients had contracted the flu, which weakened them and made their respiratory tracts vulnerable to infection, and then they came down with pneumonia on top of that (mostly likely spread at the hospitals victims went to for treatment). In those days, there were no antibiotics, which would’ve combated a bacterial infection. Without such treatment, millions of victims died. Today, we have the benefit of antibiotics and better awareness for treating viruses generally.
Last year when this story came out, it was buried in the back page because an influenza epidemic was the last thing on people’s minds. I’m sure the only people who bothered to read the story were historians and medical professionals. It was chance that I noticed it, and I read it only to update my knowledge on an event that I sometimes touch on in class.
Cut to today, when all over the news you hear fear-mongering stories about swine flu. Everyone’s up in arms. Their memories are short, so they’re all worked up. They forget, first of all, that this is not our only experience with swine flu. It actually hit in the 1970’s and did not come anywhere near epidemic status then. Drawing on that experience, you wouldn’t be too inclined to get worked up about this “threat” then — particularly since the casualties are so ridiculously low. Would to God people were so distraught over the AIDS crisis in Africa and wanted to do something to help the MILLIONS of orphans there whose parents have died from that disease. (By the way, I discussed the recent hysteria over the swine flu with my mother, who recalled the previous go ’round. She noted that as a child, she was inoculated against polio, smallpox, and other illnesses. Of all the vaccines she was given, though, swine flu one was the only one to make her sick. It made her miserable.) Anyway, without regard to our previous experience with this virus, the talking heads on the news have constantly raised the specter of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic for comparison here.
Nowhere in any of the current reports have I seen mention of the news report last year about the real cause of the 1918 epidemic. Nor do they mention that subsequent flu outbreaks that were not accompanied by bacterial infections had significantly lower mortality rates — in keeping with our normal experience with the flu. It’s the flu, people! Relax. If you keep up with your history, you can have an informed knowledge of the actual risks here. History can be useful — but only if you use it.
Oh, and here’s the link to the news release from last year from the National Institutes of Health so you can read it for yourself: