Span­ish flu: Global pan­demic

Lead­ing ex­pert Dr John Ox­ford says that we can­not ‘for­get and re­lax’ about the great plague

All About History - - CONTENTS - Dr John Ox­ford is the UK’S top ex­pert on Span­ish flu and an Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Virol­ogy at Univer­sity of London. He is also the founder of Ret­ro­screen Virol­ogy, which has car­ried out vac­cine and anti-vi­ral clin­i­cal tri­als for 20 years.

Dsi­cover the plague that in­fected mil­lions of peo­ple around the world in 1918

What caused this par­tic­u­lar in­fluenza out­break to be so deadly?

Th­ese pan­demic in­fluenza viruses are ba­si­cally bird viruses. Birds are their nat­u­ral hosts, par­tic­u­larly mi­grat­ing birds like ducks, swans and geese. They are in­ad­ver­tently in­fected with all kinds of in­fluenza strains and they come into con­tact with lo­cal birds, par­tic­u­larly chick­ens. The viruses then move from the mi­gra­tory to the lo­cal bird pop­u­la­tions that are un­der more stress — they’re usu­ally bat­tery fed, squashed to­gether in farms when they start to be­come in­fected.

The birds’ keep­ers are at risk of pick­ing up the in­fluenza from their live­stock, and the viruses can move from the keeper to the fam­ily and then to their friends. That’s the route we think, and we think that’s what hap­pened in 1918, [as well as with the later out­breaks in] 1957, 1968, 1976 and 2009. You can’t stop mi­grat­ing birds, so hu­mans have a prob­lem.

On what scale was the world im­pacted by the Span­ish flu?

In the pe­riod of 18 months, it was global — maybe as many as 50 to 100 mil­lion peo­ple died. That puts the Span­ish flu into a cat­e­gory of its own. You might think of the bubonic plague, as ev­ery­one does when they think of his­tory’s great in­fec­tions, but this ex­celled that. While the bubonic plague is recog­nised as an im­por­tant in­fec­tion, it had nowhere near the im­pact of the Span­ish flu.

To what ex­tent was World War I re­spon­si­ble for the out­break?

The pan­demic up is tan­gled up in the war — with­out the war, I don’t think we would have had the pan­demic. Who­ever was re­spon­si­ble for the con­flict, in a way they also have to take own­er­ship for the ex­traor­di­nary amount of peo­ple who died from the in­fluenza.

We can con­clude that if you’re a politi­cian and you start in­dulging your­self in war­mon­ger­ing, you have to be pretty care­ful and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for it — which they usu­ally don’t.

What can we learn from the pan­demic?

The Span­ish flu is the biggest out­break of any in­fec­tion ei­ther then or now and we still have to take it very se­ri­ously all th­ese years later. We’re obliged to look at it and ask why did that virus do what it did, how did it do it, did it have some spe­cial vir­u­lence fac­tor and could we pos­si­bly have a re­turn of it.

By un­der­stand­ing the Span­ish flu, we can some­how pro­tect our­selves against an in­fluenza that could do the same again.

I don’t think we can for­get and re­lax. We must still take it se­ri­ously and we have to plan for th­ese re­cur­ring pan­demics or else we could be caught nas­tily. We’re still get­ting pan­demics and we’ll con­tinue to get them.

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