Even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to be grateful for living in the best of times characterised by spectacular advances in global literacy levels, science and technology. The generation that inhabited the world in 1918 experienced the worst state of affairs while grappling with the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the deadliest in history.
To better appreciate the times the global population is currently living in, the following scenarios highlight the fundamental differences between Covid-19 and the 1918 pandemic, which was caused by H1N1 influenza virus.
The death toll from Covid-19 around the world is slightly over 500,000. Even though the number of deaths will keep rising, there is a certainty that the figure will pale into insignificance compared with the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that claimed at least 50 million lives. The containment measures coupled with medical and scientific understanding of Covid-19 have continued to play a key part in its mitigation.
It is noteworthy that while the 1918 pandemic was indiscriminate, the young and otherwise healthy adults between 20 and 40 years with robust immunity were the worst hit due to an over-reactive immunity against the flu virus, resulting in lung deformities and ultimately more deaths in this age group. Covid-19, on the other hand, is particularly severe among the elderly, especially those with underlying health conditions and weakened immunity.
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While there is no cure for Covid-19 yet, front line healthcare workers are able to provide other supportive measures to manage symptoms of the infected persons by administering antibiotics to fight off secondary infections in patients with weak immune system. During the 1918 pandemic, healthcare support was provided in a very limited way.
Governments and organisations around the world are providing constant and timely updates in order to inform and create awareness among the general public on how to minimise the risk of contracting the disease. In addition, with the availability of the internet, the public is able to explore more aspects about Covid-19 at the click of a mouse or a tap into their smartphone. During the 1918 pandemic, information to the public was provided in fragmentary and inconsistent manner, while the idea of internet was way far from conception.
Unprecedented advances in scientific research enabled the discovery of a diagnostic method that has come handy in the detection of Covid-19.
The most common and robust method employed is known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a technique that was discovered in 1985 by Kary Mullis, an American biochemist. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his groundbreaking discovery. In contrast, there was no reliable technique to diagnose the Spanish Flu virus in 1918.
As of now, more than 53,000 research papers on various aspects of Covid-19 have been submitted, peer reviewed and published in international journals of repute over the last six months. These papers can be easily accessed online.
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Further, scientists and leading pharmaceutical companies across the globe are working tirelessly to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. Encouragingly, vaccine clinical trials have started in some countries, notably South Africa. In the case of Spanish Flu, this was impossible, as scientific research and medicine were relatively at their infancy.
Most importantly, in 2020, the world is largely at peace and harmonious, and in the wake of Covid-19, international travel has been controlled to curb the spread of Covid-19. In addition, measures such as quarantine and contact tracing have been effectively enforced to break the chain of transmission.
The Spanish Flu of the 1918 coincided with the later stages of the World War I. This war is the single most important factor that accelerated the spread of the flu virus and, as consequence, deaths, owing to massive cross-border movement of troops, severely interfering with quarantine and contact tracing.
[Dr Kerima teaches Biochemistry at Moi University, [email protected]