25 April 2009


With all the talk of swine flu/bird flu/SARS, there are inevitably references to the Spanish influenza epidemic that followed the first world war. Here's a short paragraph from a 2004 TIME article (on the avian variant) that contains some remarkable statistics. I had never seen the life expectancy figures before. Even without factoring in the flu effect, we've come to take for granted a good many more years than our grandparents and great-grandparents would have.

When the Spanish flu struck the world in 1918, one leading physician, a former president of the American Medical Association, thought he was seeing the end of civilization. It was a reasonable conclusion. The virus rampaged throughout the world, leaving morgues overstuffed with bodies. In 1917, the year before the flu hit, life expectancy in the U.S. was 51 years. In 1918, it was 39 years—a drop that was due almost entirely to the flu. Worldwide, 100 million or more may have died from the Spanish flu, including 20 million in India alone.


To put this in the proper perspective, I'll also post (a few days later) a paragraph from
The New York Times. Note lower estimate of 1918 deaths as well as progress in treatment.

Even in 1918, according to the C.D.C. [US Center for Disease Control], the virus infected at least 500 million of the world’s 1.5 billion people to kill 50 million. Many would have been saved if antiflu drugs, antibiotics and mechanical ventilators had existed.


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