The World Health Organization warned Thursday that humanity is woefully unprepared for a pandemic, underscoring the concerns about long-term health impacts of the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu, which has been blamed for killing as many as 50 million people.
The report says that people today have access to better treatments and vaccines than ever before, but given the limited investment in biomedical research, developed nations are lagging behind developing nations in anticipating potential health threats.
The warning comes two days after the world marked the 100th anniversary of the flu outbreak that killed nearly 60 million people in 1918. But many questions remain about the impact of this outbreak on the modern era. For example, what, if anything, contributed to the changes in technology that made it easier for sick people to spread themselves around?
The flu pandemic that hit the world 100 years ago set a dangerous precedent by stunning nations with an abrupt shift in circumstances. It came on a rampage, striking a huge swath of the population.
The outbreak came from what was later dubbed the “Spanish flu,” a strain of influenza that had been imported from Europe. The virus spread around the world in a few months. By the spring of 1918, it appeared to be contained, but it came roaring back with vengeance.
“Like a flood, it took all before it in a few months, a seemingly unstoppable surge of rivers rushing down streams in floods,” declared President Woodrow Wilson in a public address.
The outbreak caused nearly 500,000 deaths worldwide — nearly half of which occurred in the United States. The total number of deaths is still disputed, but by the 1920s researchers had concluded that the pandemic had killed about 20 million people.
Today, small-scale outbreaks of viral illnesses are known to be far more damaging than those of larger proportions. A prolonged outbreak like the 1918 flu could cause catastrophic health impacts for generations, the WHO said.
From the start, a pandemic was known to be possible, but transmission itself was not considered a threat, said Dr. Maria Neira, chief of the WHO’s global health emergency response team.
“Historically, even with heavy cases in the 1910s, the main message was not to fear international transmission,” Neira said. “You don’t need to fear from diseases, which are under our control.”
But viruses are always difficult to predict. In 1918, researchers only scratched the surface. Still, the high-profile outbreak spurred major public health advances. The public health response required international cooperation, and developed nations took on a greater role in disease monitoring than they had in the past.
But an outbreak is never truly under control.
An ongoing pandemic — or even a temporary outbreak — can be as deadly as the first one, experts say. Not only are people unaccustomed to life with low doses of the virus in circulation, but every case is double-exposed to the disease, two of the most critical factors that drive the spread of viruses.