Historic Influenza Pandemics

During the past 300 years, about ten severe worldwide epidemics - pandemics - have struck, and in each instance, large portions of the world's population have been affected. The latest was the Hong Kong Flu, which took between one and two million lives during the period 1968-1970. The question is not whether a pandemic will strike again, but when. Thus, it is important to understand how we should prepare ourselves.

During 2007-2009, four researchers from Umeå University and the University of Oslo have studied our four most recent pandemics: the Asiatic Flu (1889-1890), the Spanish Flu (1918-1919), the Asian Flu (1957-1958), and the Hong Kong Flu (1968-1970). The project entitled “Previous Influenza Pandemics as a Knowledge Base for Emergency Planning” (”Historiska influensapandemier som kunskapskälla för beredskapsplanering”) was granted six million kronor by the Swedish Emergency Management Agency. By studying the preparations, rules, measures and actions of these times, the researchers hope to provide completely new information on how we should act when the next pandemic strikes and on which priorities we may be forced to make.

Learning from history

The research goal is to understand how society and people were affected. Knowledge about previous pandemics can be used to create a picture of what a future pandemic might look like. For example, what is the effect of closing schools? In what ways will society be put out of operation in the event of extensive illness absences? Which individuals will be affected most severely and, thus, should be protected in particular?

Epidemics are always going on. HIV has ended more than 20 million lives, and The new influenzas H1N1 (Swine Influenza) and H5N1, called Avian Influenza or Bird Flu, have again made people aware of the threat of epidemics. Avian Influenza has existed for about ten years and could well have developed into a pandemic if it had undergone adaptation that also enabled transmission of disease between humans and not merely from birds to humans.

When pandemics strike, they strike hard. During the Asian Flu, Swedes accumulated a total of 5.6 million days of illness, and at that time there were only 7.3 million of us. In another perspective, we can establish that the Asian Flu took the lives of four million people worldwide, whereas the corresponding figure for the Spanish Flu was 50 million.

Page Editor: Lena Holmberg

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Provisoriska Spanska Sjukhuset i Östersund 1918