Pandemic Journal (# 28): The 1918 Flu Never Went Away  

Concerns over when the  current coronavirus pandemic would end prompted a Washington Post journalist, Teddy Amenabar, to report, “Over time, those who contracted the [1918 flu] virus developed an immunity to the novel strand of influenza, and life returned to normal by the early 1920s, according to historians and medical experts. Reports at the time suggested the virus became less lethal as the pandemic carried on in waves.”[1]

However, this “strand of the flu didn’t just disappear. The influenza virus continuously mutated, passing through humans, pigs and other mammals. The pandemic-level virus morphed into just another seasonal flu. Descendants of the 1918 H1N1 virus make up the influenza viruses we’re fighting today.”

According to  Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education who successfully sequenced the genetic makeup of the 1918 influenza virus in the 1990s, “the 1918 flu is still with us, in that sense. It never went away.”

In 2009, two influenza experts at the National Institute of Health (David Morens and Jeffrey Tanbenberger) along with Anthony S. Fauci wrote an article that asserted that the 1918 influenza virus had contributed to pandemics in 1957, 1968, 2009 (and now 2020) which constitute a “pandemic era.” [2]

“There are similarities to draw between today’s pandemic and [the 1918 influenza]. Both come from winged animals — one from birds and the other from bats. Both are respiratory viruses. Both led people to wear masks in public. Both forced cities and schools to shut down for periods of time. And, finally, in both cases, the country’s leaders exacerbated problems by ignoring the early warning signs.”

Nevertheless, “influenza viruses and coronaviruses are not the same. There’s very little someone can draw from influenza to then provide treatment for the infectious disease named covid-19, said Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.”

The last word was provided by Dr. Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian at the University of Michigan. “The sad answer is [that the 1918 influenza outbreak cannot tell us] very much [about how the current pandemic may end]. The operative word in this particular pandemic is ‘novel’ coronavirus. We’re learning as we go along, but we really don’t know very much.”[3]

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[1]  Amenabar, ‘The 1918 flu is still with us’: The deadliest pandemic ever is still causing problems today, Wash. Post (Sept. 3, 2020).

[2]   Morens, Taubenberger & Fauci, The Persistent Legacy of the 1918 Influenza Virus, N. Eng. J. Medicine (July 16, 2009).

[3] Another recent Washington Post article described individuals recently discovering letters by their ancestors that described what living through the 1918 influenza pandemic was like and seeing parallels with our experience with the current coronavirus pandemic. (Natanson, ‘It is getting better now’: Family letters for the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, Wash, Post (Sept. 6, 2020). See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu (Mar. 27, 2020);[Comment]; Naming of 1918-20 Pandemic (Mar. 28, 2020); [Comment]: Other Thoughts on the 1918 Flu (April 22, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 (May 17, 2020); Minnesota Romance in the Midst of the 1918 Flu (June 17, 2020).

 

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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