Flu pandemic, Spanish flu, pandemics, epidemics, public health, vaccination, readiness | Homeland Security Newswire

1918 flu pandemicAnalyzing the past to protect our future: discussing the 1918 flu pandemic

Published 22 February 2018

Imagine living in a time of unprecedented medical breakthroughs that significantly increased the human lifespan—new therapies to treat cancers, new vaccines to prevent previously fatal infectious diseases. Imagine living in a time of new modes of communication with never-imagined speed to spread news. Sounds a lot like the world that we live in, doesn’t it? This was also the world in which the 1918 influenza epidemic took place.

Imagine living in a time of unprecedented medical breakthroughs that significantly increased the human lifespan—new therapies to treat cancers, new vaccines to prevent previously fatal infectious diseases. Imagine living in a time of new modes of communication with never-imagined speed to spread news. Sounds a lot like the world that we live in, doesn’t it?

This was also the world in which the 1918 influenza epidemic took place. 

ASM says that despite their advancements, societies and countries around the world experienced vast losses of life and cultural shifts due to the 1918 influenza pandemic. Lessons learned about influenza preparation in the 100 years since then were discussed at a dinner session at the 2018 ASM Biothreats meeting. Moderator and health security expert Gigi Kwik Gronvallled a conversation between Scott Knowlesof the Department of History at Drexel University and Jason Matheny, Director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). The panel discussed the history of the pandemic and how understanding this history might help us prepare for a similar event in the future.

Preparing for disasters, including the disaster of epidemic infectious disease, requires coordination between public health workers, communications officials, government agencies, and health care providers to release accurate information to the public and to educate communities on the best courses of action. People living in 1918 were at the forefront of many medical and technological advances (as we are 2018). “If you lived in 1918, you were living in an age of wonders. You were living in a time when rabies, typhoid—they now had shots for these things,” said Knowles. This was also the era of World War I, which affected all aspects of government and civilian life. The US entry into the war led to passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which made it illegal to use “abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” In addition to stifling information about sick soldiers, these acts led news outlets to feel obligated to print morale-lifting news. Very few news outlets covered the severe illness that was affecting many soldiers in their barracks. Information censorship, practiced in many nations at the time, made these countries less prepared when the disease spread from the armed forces into the civilian population.