All About History

Spanish flu: Global pandemic

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

- 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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