The influenza epidemic of 1918 is perhaps one of the deadliest natural disasters our planet has ever experienced.
With an estimated 50 million deaths or more, the 1918 flu, which some believe was actually an H1N1 epidemic, killed more people than World War I. (1)
Could something so devastating happen to us again?
In 1918, the average man only lived to be 53, and the average woman to 54. Infant mortality was high as well. Illnesses that seem like an annoyance to most people today, such as diarrhea, were often deadly at this time in history.
Part of the problem was a lack of sanitation. People didn’t understand the significance of germs, and they came to believe that dirt was the cause of illness.
While the resulting focus on cleaning up the cities and improving sanitation certainly helped, it did not present the whole picture.
The Evolution of Medical Science
During the 1918 flu, doctors were also not as skilled as they are today. Even though doctors were required to have actual medical training as early as 1900, those that had been practicing medicine previous to that time were allowed to continue.
The combination of untrained doctors and the lack of understanding regarding germs, viruses and bacteria, meant that many people were not properly diagnosed and not properly treated. (2)
Fortunately, today we know far more about the actual causes of disease, as well as the importance of proper sanitation.
Doctors receive many years of rigorous training and the general public is far more educated about ways to prevent and treat influenza.
Does that mean we are completely safe from a future pandemic?
Consider that in 2009, a variant of the H1N1 influenza virus of 1918 again struck fear into the world. Thankfully, it was not as deadly as the 1918 flu outbreak.
What We Know Could Kill Us
However, it’s important not to forget that scientists have created a new strain of H5N1 (bird flu) that is extremely contagious and deadly.
So deadly, in fact, that the government has asked scientists to leave details out of their reports that cover how the virus was mutated, in order to prevent the information from being used by bioterrorists.
One scientist, virologist Ron Fouchier, said it is “one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
Paul Keim, chair for the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said of the virus, “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one.”
His previous work was on anthrax, which he said isn’t scary at all compared to this new virus mutation. (3)
What makes this virus so terrifying is the fact that it is spread through the air. An innocent-sounding cough could result in the spread of an incredibly deadly flu virus.
Today, people are far more mobile than they were in 1918. This simple fact could help the virus spread like wildfire.
What if this lethal virus somehow made its way – intentionally or not – out of the lab? What if bioterrorists discovered how to create it themselves?
Would the mutated virus cause another epidemic as devastating as that of 1918? Some scientists believe it to be a very strong possibility. And with the government trying to censor the details of these findings, will the public really be protected?
Or will that censorship simply prevent faster progress toward learning how to control the beast that they have already created?
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