Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

100 years ago . . .

Although there have been some public reflections on WWI in corporate media, I've come across very little about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Check this out:

The blue line is the age-adjusted death rate in the United States, and the orange line is life expectancy at birth. They've both been going in the right direction throughout the 20th Century, and most of the 21st until the past few years (more on that later), but as you can see in 1918 we spiked right back into the 19th. Our best estimates are that 50 million people died in the epidemic worldwide, and 675,000 in the U.S. The spike in deaths wasn't caused by the war, per se. The U.S. lost 53,402 personnel in combat, and more than 60,000 to disease, mostly flu. 

The pandemic was particularly cruel because unlike in normal flu seasons, young people were disproportionately subject to severe complications and death. It is thought that this was because this strain of flu provoked a particularly extreme immune reaction which the lungs to fill with fluid and drown the victim. Yikes.

Back then viruses had not been discovered, and there were no effective treatments. Today we know what causes influenza, we have partially effective vaccine, and we can keep people with severe complications alive with ventilators until their bodies manage to fight off the disease. But the price of not repeating 1918 is eternal vigilance. The World Health Organization member countries all participate in a global influenza surveillance program and cooperate to fight influenza when it emerges. If a particularly virulent strain does emerge, we may not have ample warning -- getting vaccines for new strains to market takes many months -- but we'll have some time to prepare and we'll know what to do.

But a new, as yet unknown virus may leave us not so lucky. And no, the Free Market™ will not protect us. Only organized action by governments can do that. 

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