What happened when the 1918 flu pandemic met World War I
By Dr. Howard Markel
via the PBS News Hour (TV network) web site
When it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is safe to say that no one wins if the conflict helps spread the coronavirus.
Before Russia’s forces began attacking its neighbor, both countries had just hit records in new daily cases, peaking at an all-time high in Ukraine in early February. On Feb. 24, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the assault, there were more than 25,000 new confirmed cases in Ukraine, according to the World Health Organization. While infections had begun to fall before Russia’s invasion, for multiple days in the past week the global health agency had reported no official data from the country – perhaps a reflection of the chaos and violence that has sent more than 2 million refugees to flee to other countries and scrambled its health infrastructure. No one has any real idea of how the virus may be spreading now.
“Low rates of testing since the start of the conflict mean there is likely to be significant undetected transmission,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news briefing on March 2. “Coupled with low vaccination coverage, this increases the risk of large numbers of people developing severe disease.” Just 35 percent of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated against COVID, while 50 percent of Russians are – both below the worldwide average.
On every level, it is unwise to declare war during a pandemic. Infectious diseases have typically followed lines of humans engaged in travel, commerce and war. From the Civil War up until World War II, more soldiers died of infections than from bullets. Cholera, typhus fever, bubonic plague and other deadly microbes were all spread because germs also travel.
This was certainly the case with the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which was one of the worst contagion crises in the history of humankind. Around the world, anywhere from 40 to 100 million people died, according to various estimates, with 500,000 to 750,000 deaths in the United States alone. It was a particularly virulent and novel strain of influenza that attacked young adults most severely, in contrast to seasonal influenza’s typical victims, the very young and the elderly.
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