The Long Gross History Of The Modern Flu Pandemic

The flu has been kicking humanity’s ass for the last 130 years and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Friday afternoon the CDC released these numbers concerning the current influenza outbreak

And they are understandably worrying, so let’s put it in perspective. Here now are the most notable flu outbreaks in U.S. and world history.

1. The Russian Flu (Influenza A/USSR/90/77 H1N1)

Duration: 1889-1890

Total Deceased: About 1 million people worlwide.

How It Became A Pandemic: The Russian flu outbreak was less dangerous than the majority of the flu outbreaks that would come after. Though, impressivlely, thanks to railway and intercontinental ships, it traveled 202,800 kilometers in less than a week. Shockingly, it reached the U.S. only 70 days after its initial outbreak in Russia. It’s also the first outbreak of a global influenza pandemic we have records of. Compared to what would come later on during the 20th century, the Russian Flu outbreak is considered mild.

2. The Spanish Flu (Influenza A virus subtype H1N1)

Duration: 1918-1919

Total Deceased: Between 1-3% of the world’s population died from the virus, about 20-50 million people.

How it became a pandemic: World War I did not cause the pandemic, but it certainly didn’t help it. Flu-related fatalities were actually censored by multiple national news agencies for fear that it might lower troop morale. Although it was called Spanish Flu due to initial reports of an outbreak in Spain, no one really knows where the disease originated. Symptoms included overstimulation of the immune system, hemorrhaging from mucous membranes in the nose, stomach, and intestine. Bleeding from the ears and petechial hemorrhages in the skin also occurred. Most deaths occurred from bacterial pneumonia, an infection caused by the virus. Victims essentially drowned in their own fluids.

3. The Asian Flu (Influenza A virus subtype H2N2)

Duration: 1956-1958

Total Deceased: The World Health Organization puts the total at about two million worldwide.

How It Became A Pandemic: The Asian Flu was a mutated version of the strain that caused the influenza outbreak of 1889. It’s heavily debatable, but many researchers believe the human DNA from H2N2 combined with wild duck DNA, creating the strain that broke out in 1956. It was first discovered in April of 1956 in Hong Kong and by June it had already made its way to North America. A vaccine to fight the virus wasn’t made until 1957.

4. The Hong Kong Flu (Influenza A Virus H3N2)

Duration: 1968-1969

Total Deceased: 1 million worldwide, it is considered the mildest pandemic of the 20th century.

How It Became A Pandemic: The Hong Kong Flu was extremely similar to the strain that was first seen in China during the ’50s. The Hong Kong Flu was slightly different, being H3N2, whereas the Asian Flu was H2N2. Improved medicine and availability of antibiotics cut down the death rate considerably. The symptoms lasted less than a week, and the majority of victims were 65 and older. The spread of the diseases is largely due to Marines coming back from Vietnam. By the end of its first year it had spread worldwide.

5. The 1976 Swine Flu Fiasco

Duration: 1976

Total Deceased: Dozens of Americans

How It Became A Pandemic: So this isn’t exactly a pandemic as much as a false-panic that happened during the winter of 1976, when a handful of swine flu cases were discovered at a military base in New Jersey. Americans were still terrified of what happened during the influenza outbreak of 1918. When immunization began in October of 1976, officials over-reacted and made vaccines that ended up giving recipients Guillain-Barré syndrome. Fifty-four patients who received flu vaccines that year became paralyzed.

6. Swine Flu (Swine-Origin Influenza Virus S-OIV)

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Duration: 2009-Ongoing(ish)

Total Deceased: Between 14-18 thousand deaths worldwide.

How It Became A Pandemic: The 2009 outbreak of swine flu was the second pandemic involving the H1N1 strain of influenza — the first being the 1918 outbreak. Main symptoms of the disease were shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, vomitting, and low temperature. The virus had an exceptionally bad effect on children, however, with the CDC reporting 277 children dying from swine flu between 2009 and 2010 in the U.S. alone.

7. And that brings us up to today:

According to an ABC News report released Friday afternoon the flu season appears to be waning in some parts of the U.S. That doesn’t mean it won’t make a comeback in the next month or so, though.

Five fewer states reported high flu activity levels in the first week of January than the 29 that reported high activity levels in the last week of December, according to the CDC’s weekly flu report. This week, 24 states reported high illness levels, 16 reported moderate levels, five reported low levels and one reported minimal levels, suggesting that the flu season peaked in the last week of December.

So wash your hands and stay away from sick people!

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