HEALTHLINE: How past pandemics shape our modern response

Published: Mar. 17, 2020 at 11:06 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - This is not the first time the world has battled a global pandemic, but the outbreak of COVID-19, in many ways, is pushing public policy and medical research into new territory. For one thing, there’s no vaccine or anti-viral medication to prevent or treat the virus.

“Right now, the virus has an open playing field. It can infect anyone. It seems to be spreading very, very quickly,” said researcher, Dr. Rebecca Christofferson.

A hospital facility full of patients in Iowa during 1918 Flu Pandemic
A hospital facility full of patients in Iowa during 1918 Flu Pandemic(CDC)

Christofferson studies emerging viruses and transmission under the umbrella of the LSU Vet School. She says one thing that makes this outbreak different from other viruses, like the seasonal flu, is researchers are struggling to pin down transmission rates because most people who carry the virus do not show symptoms. Christofferson explains that without knowing exactly where transmission happens, it’s hard to know exactly how many people are infected, which in turn impacts data on mortality and infection rates.

She also points out that with so many potential patients not showing symptoms, you may be spreading the virus without knowing it.

“You may not show symptoms and you may still be a carrier and you may still be able to transmit to other people,” said Christofferson. “It might not be that person you transmit to get sick. It might not be the next person, but somewhere along the line, someone will get sick and it could have been avoided.”

Christofferson says the science backs up the need to follow expert guidance to slow the spread of COVID-19, and so does history.

"In 1918, most cities ended up doing the same thing. The trouble is most of them did it too late," said author and historian John Barry. “If you wait until people are sick, it’s too late to have impact.”

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The restrictions from governments, shutdown of sports, and mass public instructions to just stay home are unprecedented, but they’re the results of deadly lessons from the past. The CDC estimates the 1918 Spanish flu, which spread across the globe during World War I, Infected one third of the world’s population and killed 50 million worldwide. It’s considered one of the worst pandemics in modern history.

In his book, The Great Influenza, Barry explains how the outbreak unfolded. His insights into how leaders handled, or mishandled, the outbreak then have helped shaped modern pandemic plans today. One of the biggest mistakes of 1918, according to Barry, were governments’ attempts to hide or ignore the outbreak. For example, the City of Philadelphia went ahead with a public parade despite recommendations from doctors. Two days later, a deadly wave of infections slammed the city.

“Whatever public health measures you recommend are not going to work unless people actually take the advice. I think the number one lesson that came out of 1918 was that you tell the truth," said Barry.

An ambulance worker sets up a demonstration in D.C.
An ambulance worker sets up a demonstration in D.C.(CDC)

Today, we are seeing regular press conferences with leaders working with experts and public campaigns to encourage everything from washing hands to social distancing. Barry says those are good steps, but he worries some leaders are still trying to downplay the COVID-19 outbreak and turn it into a political issue.

“Nature does not care who is president. The virus is not a sentient being. Attempts to minimize the virus only make it more difficult to get the public to listen when they are advised to do something,” said Barry.

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