Does the Forgotten "Russian Flu" of the 1800s Give Clues How COVID Will Wind Down?Historians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, medical history, influenza, Russian flu
Patients suffering from respiratory and neurological symptoms, including loss of taste and smell.
Long-haul sufferers who struggle to muster the energy to return to work.
A pandemic with a penchant for attacking the elderly and obese with particular force.
Sounds a lot like COVID, right?
Rather, it’s the “Russian Flu,” the world’s first well-documented pandemic, occurring as modern germ theory rose to prominence and miasma theory dispelled, ushering in the era of modern medical science and public health.
A quick check of the textbooks—the few that actually mention the thing—will inform you that the pandemic, which killed an estimated 1 million worldwide, lasted from 1889 to 1890.
Experts will tell you it likely hung around much longer—and might still lurk, in some form, today.
Predating the now oft-discussed “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, the Russian Flu likely wasn’t a flu at all, some contend.
Instead, its symptoms more closely resemble a coronavirus—a category of viruses named for their crown-like appearance under a microscope, of which COVID-19 is a member.
Dr. Tom Ewing, a history professor and associate dean at Virginia Tech who has published extensively on the topic, considered the Russian Flu an apt comparison during the first three months of the COVID pandemic due to its quick spread and global efforts to track symptoms.
He now considers the Spanish Flu to be a better comparison due to the body count: It's thought to have killed about 650,000 people in the U.S. in eight months, and COVID has killed nearly a million in the U.S. in a little over two years. In contrast, the Russian Flu is thought to have killed a million worldwide, in sum.
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