It is only a faint memory in the world’s collective conscience today, but influenza killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide during what is now called the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. While epidemiologists have researched and debated over the exact conditions that led to such a huge loss of life, the pandemic itself completely changed the way the medical community now looks at outbreaks of infectious disease. The first true influenza vaccination was created as a result of the 1918 pandemic, first discovered when patients who received blood infusions from influenza survivors showed improvement.
Today, the flu is considered barely more than an annual nuisance due to a combination of many technological developments, such as vaccines and procedural adjustments, including more diligent use of antiseptics. However, while we may be leaps and bounds ahead of where the human race was in 1918, the threat of a massively-lethal epidemic is still very real.
Ebola is just the most recent example. Ebola may be a somewhat tiring subject for many who are conscious of the cable news world, but the outbreak has brought to the forefront much of the developing world’s lack of infrastructure needed to combat any serious disease outbreak, namely:
In August 2014 there was a major scare in Liberia, one of the nation’s hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak, as 17 people infected with Ebola were forcibly removed from their quarantine center by an angry mob and taken back to their home villages. According to a representative from a medical charity in the area, “Some people don’t believe that it exists. Definitely, as the situation is getting worse and more people are getting sick, more people also start to believe it.”
The representative and others have called for a massive public education initiative to clear the mass confusion, reminiscent of the misunderstandings previously (and in many areas, still) surrounding AIDS and HIV, which only adds to the difficulty of giving people much-needed treatment. Sadly, many contractions of these diseases show how necessary it is for the public to understand what types of contact should be avoided, and what to do if they do come in contact with a carrier or even hazardous waste, such as soiled linens or vomit. If simple precautions were put in place, a great deal of those infected now may never have been subjected to the virus.
When the World Health Organization began to deploy their assistance in Ebola-stricken West Africa, it was reported that their huge treatment centers were filled to capacity within hours of opening their doors. Many experts at the centers stated that the conditions of these centers were incredibly dangerous for healthcare workers; simple tasks like cleaning and sanitizing the area exposed them to a myriad of extremely contagious materials, not to mention the danger involved in properly disposing of the bodies. A few companies have released remotely operated sanitation robots that could actually replace humans at times of greatest potential infection. These robots are generally tasked with cleaning, but a robot that can carry and bury bodies has already been developed for Tokyo’s fire department and is now being considered for use in the current epidemic.
During the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, the slow reaction from government agencies within the United States and other countries killed tens of thousands before a serious effort was made to contain the disease. At the time, communication was limited and it was difficult for the health community to track and fight outbreaks. Taking advantage of online data is thought to be one of the best techniques we can use today to better track and prevent epidemics.
A recent survey conducted by HealthITJobs.com implied that the need for health IT specialists formally trained in telemedicine is on the rise – these professionals are key to successfully implementing new healthcare IT systems across the globe. The Huffington Post even recently profiled smartphone software that allows people to submit data about their own infection, or someone else’s, to healthcare organizations which would automatically map the spread of the virus. Public officials would then have the information they needed to quarantine and possibly evacuate areas in order to stymie the spread of deadly epidemics.
While the human race is still a long way off from eliminating infectious disease entirely, we are a world away from the threat of total extinction due to the lessons learned from our previous brushes with contagious viruses.
Nurse wearing a mask – Wikimedia Public Domain
Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas – Wikimedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Kate Voss is a freelance entertainment writer from Chicago who loves restoring antique furniture. Her most recent project was upcycling her mother’s old trunk to be used as a coffee table.