As society rings in the new year, 100 years prior, the world found itself in a losing battle against an unseen enemy.
The 1918 flu pandemic infected over 500 million people around the globe, impacting 28 percent of the U.S. population, and researchers say another epidemic of this disease could soon be on its way once again.
The year of 1918 saw the average life expectancy in the U.S. drop by 12 years alone. According to Wikipedia, this flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. While most flu outbreaks target adolescents, elderly or already weakened individuals, the 1918 strain predominately killed healthy, young adults. According to Wikipedia, 99 percent of pandemic flu deaths in the U.S. occurred in people under 65, with nearly half in young adults from 20 to 40.
Now, 100 years since the “greatest medical holocaust in history,” which may have killed more people than the Black Death, experts claim society is “due” for another epidemic, according to CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta.
“When it happens, they tell us it will probably have a greater impact on humanity than anything else currently happening in the world,” Gupta said. “And when it comes, it will affect every human alive today. Pandemic flu is apolitical and does not discriminate between rich and poor. Geographical boundaries are meaningless, and it can circle the globe within hours.”
The flu, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “a contagious respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus,” has symptoms including chills, fever, headache, malaise, running nose, sore throat, coughing, tiredness and muscle aches. According to the World Health Organization, the seasonal flu causes three to five million cases worldwide each year, resulting in 300,000 to 500,000 deaths. In the U.S., hospitals typically see 140,000 to 710,000 flu cases each year, leaving 12,000 to 56,000 dead.
However, Gupta considers the pandemic flu a “different animal.” Unlike the seasonal flu, pandemics occur when a new virus emerges. According to CNN, the result is something “mankind has never seen before, a pathogen that can spread easily from person to defenseless person—our immune systems never primed to launch any sort of defense.”
While, according to experts, there’s little individuals can do to protect against a pandemic flu, they can prevent against the seasonal strain by getting a flu vaccine. Julie Brandies, a physician at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Chicago, said while the vaccine is far from perfect, it is better than contracting the disease.
“The vaccine’s been shown to reduce the severity of influenza, but it also reduces colds and other illnesses in young, healthy, working adults,” Brandies said. “For frail people, pregnant women and elderly people, it leads to fewer deaths and fewer hospitalizations.”
Public health experts warn a bad flu season may be in the works for 2018, according to research by the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Although it is unseen whether this is the predicted pandemic, these fears are based on data from Australia, whose flu season ended in October.
“I have become convinced that, if we can develop and deploy a pandemic flu vaccine just 24 weeks faster than is currently projected, the impact could change the course of human history,” Gupta said. “Twenty-four weeks faster could mean the difference between 20,000 people dying in the next flu pandemic or more than 20 million people dying. As we were reminded with Ebola and Zika, an infection anywhere can be an infection everywhere.”