Coronavirus is far from the first pandemic to strike modern civilization, but it’s the first disease in recent times to cause such an intense global reaction. How exactly does coronavirus differ from previous pandemics, and what can we learn from the past as we seek to overcome COVID-19?
The 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu, infected about one-third of the world’s population. Though it affected more people than the coronavirus has to date, the communication and medical methods available more than 100 years ago prevented government leaders and doctors from taking the bold measures seen over the past few months of the coronavirus outbreak.
Soldiers were actively fighting in World War I when the Spanish flu outbreak occurred, causing them to spread the virus all over the world at an accelerated rate. Scientists weren’t yet aware that viruses caused disease, and vaccines and antiviral medications hadn’t been developed. Even antibiotics weren’t widely available to treat secondary bacterial infections.
This deadly combination of factors caused the 1918 Influenza pandemic to kill more than 50 million people around the world, including 675,000 in the United States. Unlike the coronavirus that is most dangerous to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the Spanish flu killed more healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.
The 1918 Influenza outbreak finally ended in 1919, more than a year after it began, after people finally developed an immunity to the disease. In total, it infected 500 million people.
2002-2004 SARS Outbreak
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was the original coronavirus to come out of China in 2002. Like the Spanish Flu and COVID-19, SARS spread through respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces. However, the SARS outbreak caused more severe respiratory symptoms that doctors could quickly identify. This allowed them to quickly quarantine infected individuals and keep the number of cases low.
As Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Minnesota, explains, SARS had a higher death rate but didn’t have the “fitness to persist in the human population.” This is much different than COVID-19, which spreads quickly and easily from person to person.
In all, 8,098 people contracted SARS in 29 countries around the world, leading to 774 deaths. In particular, patients 60 years of age and older had a 55 percent higher death rate than other age groups. A vaccine for SARS wasn’t ready until the pandemic was already ending, but some antiviral medications helped treat infected patients.
2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic
Six years after the global community had recovered from SARS, another pandemic struck. Known as H1N1, this new type of flu caused panic because no vaccine existed and nobody had an immunity to the disease.
Like the regular flu, H1N1 caused fever, chills, cough, and body aches. From its first detection in Mexico in January 2009 until it ended in August 2010, this disease infected 24 percent of the global population and killed 284,000 people.
This disease was different from past pandemics because its worst impact was on children. About 47 percent of children between 5 and 19 developed symptoms, compared to only 11 percent of people ages 65 and older. Fortunately, the majority of people recovered without complications and antiviral medications proved successful in treatment.
What Can We Learn From the Past?
While COVID-19 is unique and demonstrates many differences from previous pandemics, we can still learn valuable lessons from studying the patterns of the past.
If the actions (or inactions) taken during the 1918 Influenza pandemic and 2002 SARS outbreak can teach us anything, it’s that social distancing measures, communication, and international cooperation are essential to the containment of COVID-19.