1918 or 1976…Which Flu Are We Looking At?


In an article on Bloomberg this morning, Elizabeth Lopatto gives us a quick rundown of two other flu epidemics from the last century and their vastly different impact.

From Bloomberg:
Doctors don’t know yet if the swine flu that may have killed at least 149 people in Mexico is more like the 1918 form of influenza that left 50 million people dead, or a 1976 version that was fatal to just one.

Basically, there was a catastrophic flu outbreak during World War I (notice the masked people in the above video) and then one in 1976 that was really more of a scare.

What is worrying about the swine flu is that the age distribution of the fatalities are similar to those of the 1918 flu:

The most striking similarity between 1918 and the current flu is the age distribution of the people who died, Bloom said. The seasonal flu typically kills infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and the chronically ill. The 1918 pandemic, by contrast, killed a disproportionate number of people between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the CDC.

“In 1918, the mortalities occurred in healthy people in their twenties, which is what we’re seeing in Mexico,” said Bloom. “That’s a bit of a worry.”

If we’re looking at a flu outbreak of that magnitude, in 2009 terms, the estimates are for something like 70 million deaths and a cost of about $3 trillion, according to the World Health Organization.

If this turns out to be more like ’76, then clearly the cause for alarm is lessened a bit as that outbreak was mainly contained to the Fort Dix area with only 13 sickened soldiers and one death.

The main difference between now and 1918, or even 1976 for that matter, is that we are far more advanced technologically and medically speaking.  We also have drugs that can weaken the virus, like Tamiflu and Relenza.

One thing to keep in mind, regardless of which camp you fall into, 1918 or 1976:

“Because influenza is difficult to model, it’s hard to predict how the virus will spread”

Full Story: 1918’s Killer Pandemic (Bloomberg)

Read Also: Preparing for the Swine Flu Hysteria