By: Stuart White 31-01-2020
In 1918 what was known as the Great War, now World War I, ended, with around 10 million military casualties, around half of all those involved in the fighting. After 4 years of conflict the peace was welcomed but no-one realised that humankind was about to face a much more lethal danger, an epidemic of the Spanish ‘Flu or influenza. By the time the virus stopped its spread, at least 35 million people worldwide had died from the disease, representing around 1.5% of the global population. In most influenza epidemics, the elderly, infirm and very young make up the bulk of deaths but with this, many of those who died were healthy young adults. The pandemic possibly originated in Austria in 1917 but manifested itself first on the battlefields of the European theatre of war. The mixture of crowded soldiers, animals and 24 types of war gasses – many of which were mutagenic – might have been the cause of the first outbreak between December 1916 and March 1917. The first in the United States was in spring 1918, in several military camps, almost certainly spread by troop movements at the end of the war. The waves that occurred in 1918 and 1919 were deadlier than the first and the strain so virulent that medical experts at the time were not sure it was influenza but might be a form of cholera or typhoid because of the high infection rate and severe symptoms.
The Spanish flu was a more lethal form of ‘flu virus, but it was not very different from other strains circulating at the time or since then. Interestingly, almost all cases of influenza A except avian strains are caused by descendants of the Spanish ‘Flu virus. From bodies found buried in permafrost in Alaska, subsequent testing found that it was an H1N1 strain of flu, a strain which recurred in many guises in the ensuing century.
I reference this pandemic to try and put some context into the current panic over the emergency of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. As I write, the death toll stands at 170, all within the city itself, including the doctor initially treating sufferers. So far, only isolated cases have been reported in the US, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, France, Finland, Vietnam, and Nepal. This is in no way to downplay its seriousness, simply to put in some sanity and perspective.
Juxtaposing the two related strains of ‘flu, perhaps what is most interesting about the global spread of the 1918 epidemic was that it occurred at a time when there was no commercial aviation. This meant that unlike today, there was no question of carrying it from one continent to another overnight. Instead, it travelled at the speed of the slow, ocean-going passenger ships. Indeed, had it not been for the end of the war and the repatriation of soldiers from the Americas, Australasia and Asia, the disease might easily have been contained within a small area in Europe, since global travel in those days was unheard of for the masses. But the bigger problem came not from the migration of former combatants but the fact that at the time medicine was not advanced enough to have any effective response. By contrast Australian scientists and bio=chemists are already working hard on identifying the form of the coronavirus and formulating a treatment. But their work still has to compete with the potential global spread of the new ‘flu in the era of cheap air travel for all.
British Airways has suspended all flights to and from mainland China till March which will probably safeguard its staff members but is unlikely to have any other influence since those determined to fly in and out of China will simply find another carrier (airline, carrier, that is, not disease, though possibly both!). So presumably the only effective counter-measure would be for other countries to inspect passports pre-check-in and refuse passage to anyone who originated from, or had recently visited, China, but that would be both panicked and Draconian.
The population of China is estimated at around 1.4 billion, compared to the total of 7,783 confirmed coronavirus cases, (7,678 in mainland China and 104 cases outside). Taken into context with the 170 deaths, it is clear that the strain is by no means lethal and more importantly, nowhere is the potential spread of the disease taken more seriously than in China itself. Workers whose jobs involves interaction with members of the public are donning Hazmat (hazardous materials) suits plus face masks and gloves. Many communities have taken the initiative of blocking off their neighbourhoods with hastily-erected barricades, manned by local residents to keep out visitors. And the Chinese government has isolated the city of Wuhan itself, placing it on full lockdown, public transport at a standstill and no travellers or vehicles allowed in or out.
Some governments are warning against all but essential travel but bear in mind that that there are approximately 1.399999999 billion unaffected Chinese nationals there so the odds on not coming across an infected person are pretty good.
One cautionary note. Your chances of infection flying in or out, should you be so unfortunate as to travel with a carrier, is extremely high, owing to the poor air quality and proximity to other passengers inside a modern jetliner. Curiously, a few years back, when smoking on board was still permitted, that would not have been the case since air filters were required to be much finer, filtration more frequent and air quality much cleaner than today.
As the Alanis Morisette song says, ‘And isn’t it ironic?’