Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Review of 1918 pandemic flu studies offers more questions than answers

Experts say further study of past pandemics key to preparedness

Scientists and public health officials, wary that the H5N1 avian influenza virus could trigger an influenza pandemic, have looked to past pandemics, including the 1918 "Spanish Flu," for insight into pandemic planning. However, in a Journal of Infectious Diseases review article now posted online, David M. Morens, M.D., and Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, conclude that studies of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed some 50 to 100 million people around the globe, have so far raised more questions than they answer.

"Today, nearly a century after the 1918 influenza pandemic, its mysteries remain largely unexplained," says Dr. Fauci, NIAID director. "Much work remains to be done, by scientists as well as by historians and other scholars, with regard to the many unanswered questions surrounding this historic pandemic. These studies must be part of our preparedness efforts as we face the prospect of a future influenza pandemic."

Dr. Morens adds, "In addition to ongoing laboratory studies, we feel that much can be learned from examining the vast scientific literature related to the 1918 influenza pandemic and previous influenza pandemics. A treasure trove of journal articles and other materials exists in many languages that can be mined for novel information with practical applications relevant to the threat of pandemic influenza we face."

In their article, Drs. Morens and Fauci review several topics, including the origins of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, the excess mortality of the pandemic, the predilection to kill the young and healthy, the lower-than-expected mortality among the elderly, and the cyclicity of influenza pandemics over the past 100 years. Such topics are relevant today as highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses have spread from Asia to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

One of the great unsolved mysteries surrounding the 1918 pandemic is why it tended to kill the young and healthy. Unlike yearly influenza epidemics, in which death rates are highest among infants, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions, the 1918 influenza pandemic took its greatest toll on healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40. One possible explanation, supported by recent studies in mice with a reconstructed version of the 1918 virus, is that an over-responsive immune system may release a "cytokine storm," or excessive amount of immune system proteins that trigger inflammation and harm the patient in the process. Of note, most deaths among humans infected with the H5N1 avian influenza virus have occurred in individuals under the age of 40. However, as the authors point out, it is not yet known whether there is a higher percentage of young people in the affected populations compared to older people, whether younger people are more susceptible to infection or whether they have more exposure to infected birds.

Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza viruses have primarily infected wild birds and domestic poultry populations in dozens of countries, although at least 275 people have been infected and 167 have died. As Drs. Morens and Fauci point out, the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 pandemic appears to be avian in origin, but the host source of the 1918 virus has never been identified. Furthermore, no major disease outbreaks among birds were documented immediately before the 1918 pandemic. They suggest that an avian influenza strain could have been hidden in an obscure ecological niche, and the pandemic strain arose by the genetic adaptation of that avian virus to a new human host.

"The more we learn about influenza A viruses and what they can do to maintain their deadly relationship with the human species, the more remarkable they seem," says Dr. Morens. "The challenge for us is to learn as much about influenza viruses as they have already 'learned' about us."

Drs. Morens and Fauci also discuss the high number of deaths associated with the 1918 pandemic and the disease process, based on clinical and autopsy studies published between 1918 and 1922. Most pandemic deaths were associated with either an aggressive bronchopneumonia, in which bacteria could be cultivated from lung tissue at autopsy, or with a severe acute respiratory distress-like syndrome (ARDS) characterized by blue-grey facial discoloration and excessive fluid in the lungs. In neither case is it known whether most deaths were caused by a secondary bacterial infection or a primary viral infection. They propose that the many excess deaths that occurred during the 1918 influenza pandemic resulted from a disease process that began with a severe acute viral infection that spread down the respiratory tree causing severe tissue damage, which was often followed by secondary bacterial invasion. More definitive answers regarding the causes of deaths due to the "Spanish Flu" may require a comprehensive re-examination of the 1918 autopsy series, they note.

If a pandemic with similar characteristics were to occur in the near future, Drs. Morens and Fauci predict that the relative number of deaths would be substantially lower than that which occurred in 1918.

"Almost all 'then-versus now' comparisons in theory are encouraging," they write. "In 2007 public health is much more advanced, with better prevention knowledge, good influenza surveillance, more trained personnel at all levels, well-established prevention programs featuring annual vaccination with up-to-date influenza and pneumococcal vaccines, and a national and international prevention infrastructure." In addition, two classes of antiviral drugs are currently available, as well as antibiotics effective against bacteria that cause influenza-associated pneumonia.

The most difficult challenge in mitigating the effects of a severe pandemic today would be to ensure access to medical care and resources, they note. Hospitals, medical personnel and drug suppliers could be overwhelmed with huge demands for services, medicines and vaccines, a situation that would be exacerbated in less developed countries and impoverished regions.

Drs. Fauci and Morens conclude that the best hope for the future lies in developing and stockpiling more broadly protective influenza vaccines. In the meantime, prevention efforts should be directed towards logistical planning, increased surveillance, the development of medical countermeasures, an improved understanding of pandemic risks, and an aggressive and broad research agenda.

NIAID News Office | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Rutgers-led innovation could spur faster, cheaper, nano-based manufacturing
14.02.2018 | Rutgers University

nachricht New study from the University of Halle: How climate change alters plant growth
12.01.2018 | Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

A new kind of quantum bits in two dimensions

19.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists have a new way to gauge the growth of nanowires

19.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>