A tale of two flus

How do the Spanish and COVID-19 viruses compare?

Mary Kemper
Staff Writer

  Most people know about the Spanish flu of 1918.

  Back then, World War I was coming to an end. By 1920, almost as many soldiers on all sides died of the flu and other diseases as were killed in combat.

  No one knew exactly where the virus originated — but it was a massive pandemic nearly on the scale of the Black Plague in medieval times.

  Estimates put the worldwide death toll, soldiers and civilians alike, between 25 and 50 million.

  It struck young and old alike, but strangely, healthy young teens and adults were a big slice of those who died.

  Here in the U.S., “ground zero” was attributed to an Army camp in Haskell, Kan., but by the time this was decided, at least 14 other camps were reporting cases.

  Why was this illness so deadly? Why did this virus, today’s COVID-19, and others like it spread so quickly? Should we panic?

The ‘art’ of mutation

  Today’s COVID-19 is the same as the Spanish flu of 1918 — that is, they are variations of the H1N1 virus that gave us the SARS and swine flu in the early 2000s.

  All originated in China.

  Many are thought to have migrated from animals to humans. Poultry and pigs, specifically.

  All viruses seek a host, and the easier to inhabit, the better. No need to change. That is what happened with the Spanish flu. The hosts — pretty much everyone — had no immunity (except the Chinese, among whom it first originated), so it ran riot.

  The reason it killed so many young and healthy people was because being young and healthy, they produced an abundance of enzymes, not found in children or the elderly, that essentially burned their immune systems out at a time when they were under attack, leaving them vulnerable to death.

  Eventually, by the end of 1920, the Spanish flu dissipated and died out.

  COVID-19, on the other hand, has learned to mutate to survive.

  We have seen this in all other H1N1 viruses like SARS and the swine flu — this time, the virus is mutating even as we speak. It is a survival mechanism par excellence.

The old days, versus today

  Most flu viruses have similar symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control recommend only contacting health professionals if breathing becomes very labored, or if a temperature climbs above 103.

  We have a stellar health care system that has built upon decades of knowledge.

  Back during the Spanish flu, there was no knowledge of the behavior of the virus — no basic hygiene — no attempt to quarantine, even though diseases like the measles or scarlet fever resulted in instant quarantine.

  And no vaccines.

  As this goes to press, the U.S. health care agencies are bypassing tests on animals and going straight to human testing in order to find a vaccine. The same is happening throughout the world.

  Can COVID-19 kill as many people as the Spanish flu did? Anything is possible, but this one is not likely.

  For one thing, not everyone dies, nor even has bad symptoms. Most are recovering.

  A vaccine is coming. This flu will be beaten.

  In the meantime, pay attention to the advice: Wash your hands after every trip out of your house, and even in it. Avoid unnecessary trips, until the virus has run its course (projected to be around June).

  There will not be the tens of millions of deaths that the Spanish flu saw. But only if we take care.S