US COVID Death Count Surpasses Estimates of 1918 InfluenzaHistorians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, medical history, influenza, COVID-19
More than a century ago, the globe was left devastated by a pandemic that has been described by experts as "the deadliest in human history."
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, equivalent in proportion to 200 million in today's global population. An estimated 675,000 of those deaths occurred in the United States.
Now, 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic, the virus has claimed more American lives than its counterpart a hundred years ago.
"These are two different viruses, two different times in history, at two different times of medical history, with what you have available to combat or treat it," Howard Markel, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, told ABC News.
The influenza outbreak of 1918 began in the spring, with the novel H1N1 virus passing from birds to humans, and lasted for approximately two years. Approximately one-third of the world's population at that time, or 500 million people, was ultimately estimated to have been infected, according to the CDC.
According to experts, it is important to recall, when comparing data from the two pandemics, that the numbers of deaths stemming from the 1918 pandemic are just estimates. In fact, according to Dr. Graham Mooney, assistant professor of the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it is likely that these figures were significantly underestimated, because of non-registration, missing records, misdiagnosis or underreporting.
Likewise, experts believe that the current COVID-19 death count could already be greatly undercounted, due to inconsistent reporting by states and localities, and the exclusion of excess deaths.
Ultimately, when compared on a per-capita basis, the pandemic of 1918 was far deadlier than this one, according to Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University.
"The difference is that 1 in 500 Americans have died now, and about 1 in 152 died in 1918, although our number keeps going up," Nichols told ABC News.
Although the two pandemics were at first comparable, the introduction of the coronavirus vaccine made the differences between the two "stark," said Nichols.
"People were desperate for treatment measures in 1918. People were desperate for a vaccine," Nichols said. "We have effective vaccines now, and so what strikes me in the comparison, if you think about this milestone, this tragedy of deaths, is that same number but we have a really effective treatment, the thing that they most wanted in 1918 and '19, we've got. And for a lot of different reasons, we botched the response."
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