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Flu may not have killed most in 1918

10th February 2009

The 1918 flu epidemic may not have been as deadly as is commonly thought.

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A new study suggests that predictions of a new flu pandemic are exaggerated, and claims that streptococcus infections were to blame for the 50 to 100 million who became ill and died about 90 years ago.

Researchers also suggest that buying enough antibiotics to fight bacterial infections may be just as important as amassing antiviral drugs that battle flu.

Keith Klugman and colleagues went through records related to the 1918 pandemic, which lasted 18 months.

According to some records, sufferers took anywhere from a week to a week and a half to die.

The confusing thing is that this does not fit the pattern of a virus such as influenza, but rather of a bacterial infection.

Researchers wrote that they noticed a similar 10-day median time to death among the soldiers dying of influenza during the same year.

Flu sufferers are often susceptible to what is called a superinfection, when a bacterial agent acts in conjunction with the disease.

If a superinfection occured in 1918, streptococcus pneumoniae would be the main suspect.

As Klugman's team wrote in their letter to the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, neither antimicrobial drugs nor serum therapy was available for treatment in 1918.

However, treatments for not just one but many strains of streptococcus pneumoniae now exist.

They treat diseases like pneumonia and meningitis, among other related infections.

The projections of many governments have based themselves using what happened in 1918 as a model worst-case scenario.

In such a scenario, tens of millions of people die and more than one third of the work force is out of action for weeks.

People who are not sick would care for those who are, and the rest would avoid public places.

Klugman said that, based on 1918, he would project less mortality in an era of antibiotics.

He said that his team of scientists is currently assuming that the bacterial superinfections remain susceptible to the antibiotics and that sufficient antibiotics are available.

There were smaller pandemics of flu in 1958 and 1967.

When it comes to a new pandemic of flu, people have no idea about when it will happen, though many companies and countries are stockpiling medicines.

Epidemiologists are unable to predict the behaviour of the disease.

However, influenza kills anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 people yearly, and disease experts believe that another pandemic is inevitable.

One big fear is that the next big strain is H5N1 influenza, which currently mainly infects birds, but might make the jump to people.

Birds carrying H5N1 are found all over the eastern hemisphere of the globe: in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The variant currently has killed 254 out of 405 infected since 2003, though it does not often infect humans.

 

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Article Information

Title: Flu may not have killed most in 1918
Author: Luisetta Mudie
Article Id: 10097
Date Added: 10th Feb 2009

Sources

Reuters News

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