Understanding the 1918 flu pandemic can aid in better infectious disease response

May 14, 2014
City map of Labrador, Canada. Labrador, Canada, as seen today. Credit: JCMurphy, Wikimedia Commons.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic infected over 500 million people, killing at least 50 million. Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri has analyzed the pandemic in two remote regions of North America, finding that despite their geographical divide, both regions had environmental, nutritional and economic factors that influenced morbidity during the pandemic. Findings from the research could help improve current health policies.

"Epidemics such as the Black Death in the 14th century, cholera in the 19th century and malaria have been documented and recorded throughout history," said Lisa Sattenspiel, professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science at MU. "While it is probably impossible to consider all the dimensions of pandemics, such as cultural, social and political factors, we can get a 'snapshot' by pinpointing similar areas. Our research focused on the 1918 in Labrador, Canada and Alaska, which are widely separated in space, yet have similar geographic and environmental constraints as well as ethnic overlap."

By analyzing death records and community history, Sattenspiel and her fellow researcher, Svenn-Erik Mamelund, senior researcher at the Work Research Institute of Oslo, found that both Labrador and Alaska were devastated by the 1918 pandemic. Beginning in January 1918 and lasting through December 1920, both regions experienced higher mortality rates than most other parts of the world—34 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Archival materials from Labrador and Alaska indicated that circulating pathogens, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, played a role in morbidity. Environmental influences, including harsh, stressful winters, and nutritional factors, such as lack of food, also played a role in susceptibility to influenza. Sattenspiel says that during the summer months in Labrador the influx of infected commercial fishermen played an important role in the milder first wave of the pandemic, while during the severe second (fall and winter) wave, the movements of fur traders and hunters were more important. Additionally, researchers found that transmission rates were higher in harsher climates where a greater proportion of daily life is conducted indoors.

"Inadequate access to health care contributed to higher mortality rates in the regions studied," Sattenspiel said. "Our findings indicate that today's infectious disease planning should include evaluating the placement of nurses and trained who can administer vaccines and treatment. Programs that improve housing conditions and crowding may also help reduce disease transmission. Finally, contingency plans must take into account the remoteness of an area as well as distance to population centers and facilities."

Sattenspiel says that lessons learned from 20th century Labrador and Alaska illustrate how important it is to take a systemic approach if health officials are to improve our response to future infectious disease pandemics in today's world.

Her study, "Cocirculating epidemics, , and social conditions in early 20th century Labrador and Alaska," was published in the Annals of Anthropological Practice.

Explore further: Earliest known evidence of 1918 influenza pandemic found

Related Stories

Earliest known evidence of 1918 influenza pandemic found

September 19, 2011

Examination of lung tissue and other autopsy material from 68 American soldiers who died of respiratory infections in 1918 has revealed that the influenza virus that eventually killed 50 million people worldwide was circulating ...

Mystery of the pandemic flu virus of 1918 solved

April 28, 2014

A study led by Michael Worobey at the University of Arizona in Tucson provides the most conclusive answers yet to two of the world's foremost biomedical mysteries of the past century: the origin of the 1918 pandemic flu virus ...

Recommended for you

The 'love hormone' may quiet tinnitus

September 23, 2016

(HealthDay)—People suffering from chronic ringing in the ears—called tinnitus—may find some relief by spraying the hormone oxytocin in their nose, a small initial study by Brazilian researchers suggests.

Bile acid uptake inhibitor prevents NASH / fatty liver in mice

September 21, 2016

Drugs that interfere with bile acid recycling can prevent several aspects of NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) in mice fed a high-fat diet, scientists from Emory University School of Medicine and Children's Healthcare of ...

New therapeutic target for Crohn's disease

September 20, 2016

Research from the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) identifies a promising new target for future drugs to treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The study, published today in Cell Reports, also indicates ...

Arthritis drug may help with type of hair loss

September 22, 2016

(HealthDay)—For people who suffer from a condition that causes disfiguring hair loss, a drug used for rheumatoid arthritis might regrow their hair, a new, small study suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.