Why Plan for a Pandemic – Some History

Written by Barbara Davi

It started, harmlessly enough, with a cough drowned out by the raging world war. It was known as Spanish influenza only because censorship by the warring governments wouldn’t allow reports of the spreading illness for fear it would damage morale.

Covid_19However, Spain, being neutral, allowed its press to publicize what was happening. The first cable read, “A STRANGE FORM OF DISEASE OF EPIDEMIC CHARACTER HAS APPEARED IN MADRID.”  Because of the censors, even as millions were dying around the globe, the world press was apt to report little about the pandemic beyond what the Spanish King Alfonzo’s temperature was that morning.5 In Spain, they called it the French flu.

“The year 1918 has gone,” the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote in the Christmas issue, “a year momentous as the termination of the cruelest war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked the end, at least for a time, of man’s destruction of man; unfortunately, a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease….” That most fatal diseases killed about 10 times more Americans than did the war. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more people in less time than any other disease before or since,”9 the “most deadly disease event in the history of humanity.”

The word “epidemic” comes from the Greek epi, meaning “upon,” and demos, meaning “people.”  The word “pandemic” comes from the Greek word pandemos, meaning “upon all the people.”  Most outbreaks of disease are geographically confined, just like most disasters in general. Wars, famines, earthquakes, and acts of terror, for example, tend to be localized both in time and space. We look on in horror but may not be affected ourselves. Pandemics are different. Pandemics are worldwide epidemics. They happen everywhere at once, coast to coast, and can drag on for more than a year. “With Hurricane Katrina, people opened their homes, sent checks and people found safe-havens,” writes a global economic strategist at a leading investment firm, but with a pandemic, “there is nowhere to turn, no safe place to evacuate.”

Those who suffer anaphylactic reactions to bee stings or food allergies know the power of the human immune system. In their case, exposure to certain foreign stimuli can trigger a massive overreaction of the body’s immune system that, without treatment, could literally drop them dead within minutes. Our immune systems are equipped to explode at any moment, yet there are layers of fail-safe mechanisms that protect most people from such an overreaction. The influenza virus has learned, though, how to flick off the safety.

Both the 1918 virus and the threat, H5N1 with variants, seem to trigger a “cytokine storm,” an over-exuberant immune reaction to the virus.  In laboratory cultures of human lung tissue, infection with the H5N1 type virus led to the production of ten times the level of cytokines induced by regular seasonal flu viruses. The chemical messengers trigger a massive inflammatory reaction in the lungs. “It’s kind of like inviting in trucks full of dynamite,” says a lead researcher who first discovered the phenomenon with H5N1.

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