Between 1918 and 1919, the influenza pandemic claimed more than 550,000 deaths in the United states alone. One must appreciate that this strain of influenza virus appeared at a time in history when no medical authority on earth could discern what an influenza virus even was. The term was not even in use yet.
It would take nearly another 20 years before the word virus was associated with influenza. At the time medical professionals the world over were at a loss to find a way to treat influenza, and the treatments they implemented often did more harm than good. Doctors, at a loss as to what direction to take to stop the disease, used every technique they had at the time. Enemas and blood-letting were instigated, but did nothing more than help spread the virus.
Eventually, albeit way too late, governments began implementing isolation rules. People were asked to stop congregating in large crowds and activities were mostly conducted outdoors, in the belief the disease was prominent when one was indoors in a crowd. Events like court cases, shopping, and meetings were held outdoors.
This was all new to the world of 2018. They were involved in a war to end all wars, an event that was leaving many countries financially ruined and struggling to function. It could not have occurred at a worse time in history. In simple terms, medical science was simply not equipped to deal with an influenza outbreak of this scale. Doctors and nurses the world over were working with a disease they could not recognise or define. The events of the, First World War, were beginning to pale in comparison to the devastation the pandemic was creating.
It soon became clear that only non pharmaceutical interventions, or NPI’s would be the only solution, as adequate drugs were not yet available to fight this disease. Medicines like, antibiotics and vaccines were non existent. Medical professionals soon realised there was no cure and focused on prevention to stop the spread of the virus. Therefore, NPI measures like, social distancing, isolation, and quarantining became the norm for stopping the spread.
One of the biggest lessons that should have been learned from this period, was to be open and honest. Public figures took too long to react to the 1918-18 influenza pandemic, often playing it down and failing to act sooner than they did. There seems to be a historical pattern to this event.
The, World Health Organisation, or WHO, is tasked with dealing with such events as pandemics. Their duties include monitoring outbreaks worldwide and implementing measures to prevent the spread. They have over the course of time, compared theories that reveal new strains of influenza virus coincide with changes in weather patterns such as, La Niña. It is assumed that during these changes in weather, migratory birds alter their habits and interact with domesticated animals such as poultry and pigs. This transmits virus from one animal to another, which then mutates and is passed on to humans.
An incident like this occurred during 1997 when in a region of Hong Kong, a virus later named the Bird Flu, appeared in domesticated poultry. This spread through contact to humans who then became infected. Some of these human infections proved fatal. This strain of the virus along with other mutated versions, spread through other parts of Asia, killing even more people. All these viruses had the potential of spreading and turning in to a pandemic, however due diligence helped to eventually contain the virus.
Once again during April of 2009, the World Health Organisation declared a level 5 pandemic was imminent. Given that there are only 6 levels implemented by the World Health Organisation, the level 5 phase was taken very seriously by both governments and medical professionals world wide. Measures were put in place to establish treatment centres, drugs were distributed all over the globe, and strict policies and procedures were put in place to combat the outbreak.
Even with this swift and radical action, the virus tentacled its way across the globe, infecting more than 200 countries. The WHO eventually reclassified the alert from phase 5 to phase 6, effectively observing it as a pandemic. Ironically, ten years later in 2019, the world was alerted to a new virus. The COVID-19, or otherwise known as the, Coronavirus.
The COVID-19 virus could have been avoided, or controlled in such a way as to avoid a pandemic. However lack of transparency and a failure by governments and medical professionals to act responsibly, has seen the virus spread throughout the world and take control. It has so far claimed thousands of lives and continues to spread untethered. No vaccine is yet available, and if one should be formulated it would taken many months to fully begin implementation.
The world could have been better prepared had they heeded warnings or even learnt lessons from the past. Experts have been warning the world about a coming pandemic for years. One of these experts, Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and qualified expert in infectious diseases, has been warning about this moment for years. He pointed out the lack of preparedness by governments and hospitals. He campaigned for more ventilators to be added to hospitals and warned how ill prepared we were in the face of a pandemic.
It’s easy to point fingers now and on reflection, one has all the answers. However the sad part of this tale is that we never listen and learn. Perhaps the day will dawn when humans realise that the most dangerous threat to our existence is an uncontrolled, rampant virus.