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Pandemics transmission-Lessons from history

by insights_blog_admin

2020 is a year that most people might want to forget. However, history teaches us some important lessons. These are lessons that we need to imbibe and learn from. COVID 19 is not the first pandemic that the world is handling. And it will not be the last. Experts have argued that this had been one of the fastest spreads that we have seen as far as pandemics go. The logic is that in an interconnected world, of the type that we live in today, pandemics spread at breakneck speeds. An analysis of the past major pandemics shows us some interesting similarities

Past pandemics- Spread Patterns:

1889: Russian Flu

The first significant flu pandemic started in Siberia and Kazakhstan, traveled to Moscow, and made its way into Finland and then Poland, where it moved into the rest of Europe. By the following year, it had crossed the ocean into North America and Africa. By the end of 1890, 360,000 had died.Basically the spread started in Russia moving over the land borders and crossed the ocean.  Probably from the first set of cases to the peak and reduction of cases took about 18 months.

1918: Spanish Flu

The avian-borne flu that resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide, the 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Wire service reports of a flu outbreak in Madrid in the spring of 1918 led to the pandemic being called the “Spanish flu.”

The first wave started in the spring of 1918, with a mild variant, the second wave started in the fall of 2018, which was a virulent wave and the third wave started in winter 1918-1919 which was a less virulent wave.  In all 50-100 million people died.  The disease was suspected to be transmitted across the world by soldiers returning from the 1st world war.  But even in those days without air travel, the rapid global transmission of the disease which lasted about 18 month tells us something about the astounding power of pandemics to spread rapidly

1957: Asian flu

Starting in Asia and spreading throughout China and then into the United States, the Asian flu became widespread in England where, over six months, 14,000 people died. . It was first reported in Singapore in February 1957, Hong Kong in April 1957, and in coastal cities in the United States in summer 1957.A second wave followed in early 1958, causing an estimated total of about 1.1 million deaths globally, with 116,000 deaths in the United States alone. A vaccine was developed, effectively containing the pandemic.  The vaccine, invented by  microbiologist Maurice Hilleman was initially available in limited quantities in the developed world, but its rapid deployment later on helped saved many lives.  H2N2 influenza virus continued to be transmitted until 1968, when it transformed via antigenic shift into influenza A virus subtype H3N2, the cause of the 1968 influenza pandemic

2003: SARS

First identified in 2003 after several months of cases, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is believed to have possibly started with bats, spread to cats and then to humans in China, followed by 26 other countries, infecting 8,096 people, with 774 deaths. Although it caused a lot of alarm, SARS ended up seeing a lot less transmission compared to what the global transmission expectations were. Quarantine efforts proved effective and by July, the virus was contained and hasn’t reappeared since.SARS was seen by global health professionals as a wake-up call to improve outbreak responses, and lessons from the pandemic were used to keep diseases like H1N1, Ebola and Zika under control.


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 virus was officially a pandemic after barreling through 114 countries in three months and infecting over 118,000 people. As the dust is yet to settle, the pandemic has now infected close to 100 million people worldwide and has killed over 2 Million.  On to its 2nd or 3rdwave in some countries, global travel bans have reduced transmission but have not ended itLike the 1957 pandemic, the expectation is that the recently launched vaccines will eventually reduce spread but will not eradicate it.  It will live in some form in this world for sometime to come.

All the above cases tell us that irrespective of which times we live in, epidemics become pandemics because they spread rapidly.  In many cases, the time period of initial onset to peak to reduction took about 12-18 months, spread across 2-3 waves.  What is fascinating is that this pattern of global spread, growth and reduction was similar, in 1918 and then again more than a century later in 2020.  And these were two very different worlds.  If a time traveler were to travel from 1918 to 2020, she might be amazed by how much the world has changed, but also be chastened by the fact that when it came to pandemics, some of it has remained the same.

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