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: Researcher reviews influenza, bacterial superinfections in Nature Reviews Microbiology

Related Stories

Researcher reviews influenza, bacterial superinfections in Nature Reviews Microbiology

April 17, 2014
Le Bonheur Children's Hospital Pediatrician-in-Chief Jon McCullers, MD, was recently invited to submit a review in the April issue of Nature Reviews Microbiology, one of the world's foremost scientific publications. Dr. McCullers, ...

Large differences in mortality between urban and isolated rural areas

April 27, 2011
In urban communities, less than 1 in 100 inhabitants died from Spanish flu in 1918, but in isolated communities up to 9 out of 10 died. An important explanation for the differences is due to different exposure to influenza ...

Study shows equatorial regions in Brazil less affected by 2009 influenza pandemic

August 1, 2012
The death toll of the 2009 influenza pandemic in equatorial climates may have been much lower than originally thought, according to a study supported by the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center. The ...

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

Google searches can be used to track dengue in underdeveloped countries

July 20, 2017
An analytical tool that combines Google search data with government-provided clinical data can quickly and accurately track dengue fever in less-developed countries, according to new research published in PLOS Computational ...

MRSA emerged years before methicillin was even discovered

July 19, 2017
Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) emerged long before the introduction of the antibiotic methicillin into clinical practice, according to a study published in the open access journal Genome Biology. It was ...

New test distinguishes Zika from similar viral infections

July 18, 2017
A new test is the best-to-date in differentiating Zika virus infections from infections caused by similar viruses. The antibody-based assay, developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Humabs BioMed, a private biotechnology ...

'Superbugs' study reveals complex picture of E. coli bloodstream infections

July 18, 2017
The first large-scale genetic study of Escherichia coli (E. coli) cultured from patients with bloodstream infections in England showed that drug resistant 'superbugs' are not always out-competing other strains. Research by ...

Ebola virus can persist in monkeys that survived disease, even after symptoms disappear

July 17, 2017
Ebola virus infection can be detected in rhesus monkeys that survive the disease and no longer show symptoms, according to research published by Army scientists in today's online edition of the journal Nature Microbiology. ...

Mountain gorillas have herpes virus similar to that found in humans

July 13, 2017
Scientists from the University of California, Davis, have detected a herpes virus in wild mountain gorillas that is very similar to the Epstein-Barr virus in humans, according to a study published today in the journal Scientific ...

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.