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article imageOp-Ed: Have we learned anything about global disease epidemics?

By Karen Graham     Oct 19, 2014 in Health
The headlines read the disease is taking a toll on health care workers. People are avoiding travel and crowded shopping centers. Lawmakers are calling for a ban on foreigners from infected countries entering the U.S. Everyone is afraid of catching it.
The headlines we are seeing today over fear of the spread of the Ebola virus are very real. Many of the events that have already taken place — such as the cruise ship being banned from entering Belize — adds to our fears, although the restrictions were probably unnecessary. We are a country that is totally unprepared for an epidemic of national proportions, yet this is not the first time we have been tested.
The headlines in the opening to this story are not taken from today's newspapers. They were published in the Chicago Tribune 96 years ago. From 1918 to 1919, the world was in the throes of the greatest plague in recorded history. It was called the Spanish Flu, named for the country where people thought it had originated..
Spanish flu victims being buried. North River  Labrador  Canada  1918
Spanish flu victims being buried. North River, Labrador, Canada, 1918
Unknown
The Spanish Flu pandemic ended up affecting half of the world's population, killing over 50 million people. World War I, with 15 million deaths, didn't kill as many people as the flu. It is said more people died of the flu in one year than all the people killed by the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, which ran for four years, from 1347 to 1351.
The international response to a global epidemic in 1918 parallels 2014
Looking back on 1918, the world was at war. Political strife, rationing, and a global public health system barely out of the Dark Ages was what we had to fight any kind of disease. At that time, when the Spanish Flu started cropping up, no one could understand how it was spreading so fast. The doctors relied on contagion and quarantine practices that dated back to Medieval times.
 Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells . U.S. Public Health ad on d...
"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells". U.S. Public Health ad on dangers of Spanish Flu epidemic during World War I.
U.S. Public Health Service
But doctors worldwide had the sense to put into practice scientific methods of the period. Their ideas were based on scientific ideas, not scientific results. And with no one to turn to but the scientific community, governmental officials became dependent on what they recommended, and this created an unbalance of power, with the medical community being the Influenza Czars. Is this beginning to sound familiar?
In 1918-1919, the guidelines put into place in Europe and the United States created an authoritarian system and resulted in a loss of liberties. This is said to have come about because the world just was not prepared to deal with an epidemic of global proportions. All doctors knew for sure was that the flu was spread by coughing and sneezing. So quite naturally, steps were taken to restrict movement.
The British Medical Journal (BMJ, 10/19/1918) suggested "the best of all general measures for prevention, and this implies the avoidance of crowded meetings." This resulted in a controversial measure causing the closure of many public institutions and banning of public gatherings during the time of the epidemic.
Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.
Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918.
U.S. Government Archives
All over the world, different nations responded to the epidemic in slightly different ways, depending on the authority and power wielded by that country's public health system. In Switzerland, movie theaters, concerts and shooting matches were canceled, but this caused a national panic. In France, and other countries, schools were closed or class times shortened.
In America, streetcars were considered taboo during the epidemic because they were so crowded and dirty. States, cities and towns created emergency ordinances to deal with their populations, some very strict, others, not so much. But the essential point I'm trying to make is this: The measures put into place, worldwide, by health authorities was necessary, based on the concepts of contagion and the then known transmission of the flu. The public had to put a heck of a lot of faith in the health care system to overcome the disease, just as they need to do today.
What the health care system learned and how it applies today
Influenza is caused by a virus, an organism too small to be seen under a regular microscope. A special, electron microscope is needed. In 1918, scientists knew there was something smaller than a bacteria, but a virus was only distinguished by its size, nothing else. So what did scientists eventually learn from the influenza epidemic? Actually, a whole lot.
The first imaging of the virus that caused the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic took place in 2004. In 1918...
The first imaging of the virus that caused the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic took place in 2004. In 1918, health care professionals weren't really sure what was causing the flu. Now, we know it was caused by an Influenza A H1N1 virus.
CDC Public Health Image Library:#8243
We now have the field of Virology, the study of viruses. We have electron microscopes and vaccines that can give protection against the many flu variants we see every year.British scientists also developed vaccines. They went a step further and developed vaccines for pathogenic bacteria, like pneumococcus and the lethal streptococcus that often caused the deaths of so many flu victims. Medicine and the public health response in emergencies was advanced by the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919.
Calming our fears by being truthful
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has publicly acknowledged that our nation's protocols were inadequate in handling the country's first Ebola patient. He also acknowledged the World Health Organization's protocols were better suited to field hospital work, rather than a hospital. Most importantly, he told the nation the readiness of our country to handle Ebola was vastly overstated.
So for the first time, we are being told the truth, a truth many of us already could figure out ourselves, to be sure. But the fact that we put our faith and very lives in the hands of governmental officialdom is what bothers us. We really have no one else to turn to at this juncture, and relying on the scientific community has become all the more important.
Fauci told Fox News Sunday that "nothing is risk-free." He also said that public health officials need to start talking in "absolutes." And it is about time that the American people start hearing some "absolutes." Mass hysteria and fears are spread when we don't know what's going on or what is being planned. This applies to any, and everything in ours lives. We, the people, are still what makes this a Democracy, and our right to know is a given. So our lawmakers, administration and health care system officials had better start being truthful with the public.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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