How does the COVID-19 pandemic compare to the 1918 Spanish flu?

Posted at 11:11 PM, Mar 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-24 23:13:31-04

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As the number of coronavirus cases grows worldwide, it may be easy to compare the new virus to another global pandemic that dates back to the early 20th century: the Spanish flu.

Widely known as the most severe and deadly pandemic in modern history, Spanish flu didn’t actually come from Spain. The “1918 flu” broke out during World War I, and in a bid to sustain morale on the front and at home, warring countries minimized early reports of cases and deaths caused by the 1918 flu.

But because Spain remained neutral during the war, its press was free to report deaths, leading many to believe the country was hard-hit by the pandemic. Over 100 years later, the name stuck.

It’s not exactly clear where the flu originated. In the U.S., it was first identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918.

The CDC estimates about 500 million people, or about one-third of the world’s population at the time, became infected with the virus. It’s unclear exactly how many died of the virus due to medical records at the time, but estimates top off around 50 million deaths including 675,000 Americans.

Now vs. then

Because of COVID-19’s global spread, it’s easy to compare the two viruses -- but realize there have been 102 years between the pandemics.

In those 102 years, public health has changed dramatically, the world’s population has grown from around 1.5 billion to over 7 billion, and the advent of air travel and global supply chains have connected far corners of the world.

The world’s population is also far older, and COVID-19 has shown especially problematic for seniors.

But to keep it in perspective: COVID-19 would have to infect thousands of times as many people as it has right now to compare to the 1918 flu.

The best advice healthcare professionals can give? Keep your distance, wash your hands, and stay home if you feel sick.

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