Written by E M Nair, CNN
The last major global pandemic in 1918, known as the Spanish flu, killed up to 35 million people worldwide. The epidemic continues to be relevant today, with another flu season expected to hit — and it may be worse than ever this time around.
H1N1 became the predominant strain of the seasonal flu vaccine earlier this year, meaning this strain of the disease will have the highest chance of infecting humans. Just this week, China confirmed its first fatality from H1N1 since 2016.
More human to human spread of Influenza A is projected to cause more deaths in 2018/19 than at any time in history pic.twitter.com/tr1cvkt0Fl CNN Science Report – Tyler Curry (@TylerCNN) September 21, 2018
Yet we’re not doing enough to respond to such threats, according to the new report by the Pew Research Center . It calls on policymakers to increase spending on preparedness and mitigate the impact of future pandemics, noting that, for instance, six of the top 10 countries hardest hit by the Spanish flu were in Europe.
“Researchers fear that the next pandemic could again spawn fatalities in the United States and beyond,” said Pew. “An analysis by the Partnership for Global Health found that about half of global deaths from pandemics occurred outside of the United States. The last time a pandemic struck the US in the late 1990s, it caused the deaths of 54,000 people.”
Influenza is highly contagious, with viruses taking on the characteristics of several different species, with particular strains usually focusing on people over the age of 65. Hence, previous pandemics, which were primarily H1N1, H3N2 and H3N8, have each taken on their own signature characteristics.
An alert in Spanish, left, describing the flu as the “Spanish flu” is signed by Dr. Roy Vienot, head of the Pasteur Institute’s Pandemic Influenza Diagnostic Center, in Paris, France. Credit: PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
“That doesn’t mean the next one will mimic any of those three previous pandemics. In fact, we are already seeing an H5N1 virus that has evaded the vaccine,” said Pew. “We are starting to get a real sense that H1N1 is going to cause major problems this year. And we also know that no matter what, the Americas will be very vulnerable, despite the fact that that is a large flu vaccine area.”
This year, researchers suggest, the projected global number of deaths will be several millions — with previous reports predicting that the 1918 flu could cause more than 33 million deaths worldwide.
“The worst-case scenario is that the H1N1 flu will spread across a wide swath of the globe, similar to 1918, and kill as many as 50 million people worldwide — the same number the worst pandemic caused in 1918. That would represent 30% of the world’s annual population, and suggest that such an event could kill a lot of people even as it doesn’t replicate the ferocity of the 1918 strain,” said Pew.
Despite the current trend of greater global focus on such pandemics, the report also argues that continued effort is needed, given that World War II — the nation’s deadliest battle — claimed more than a million lives.