The Legacy of the Pandemic
No one knows exactly how many people died during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. During the 1920s, researchers estimated that 21.5 million people died as a result of the 1918-1919 pandemic. More recent estimates have estimated global mortality from the 1918-1919 pandemic at anywhere between 30 and 50 million. An estimated 675,000 Americans were among the dead.
All of these deaths caused a severe disruption in the economy. Claims against life insurance policies skyrocketed, with one insurance company reporting a 745 percent rise in the number of claims made. Small businesses, many of which had been unable to operate during the pandemic, went bankrupt.
Research on the Pandemic in the 1920s:
In the summer and fall of 1919, Americans called for the government to research both the causes and impact of the pandemic. In response, both the federal government and private companies, such as Metropolitan Life Insurance, dedicated money specifically for flu research.
In an attempt to determine the effect influenza had different communities, the Public Health Service conducted several small epidemiological studies. These studies, however, were conducted after the pandemic and most PHS officers admitted that the data which was collected was probably inaccurate.
PHS scientists continued to search for the causative agent of influenza in their laboratories as did their fellow scientists in and outside the United States.
But while there was a burst of enthusiasm for funding flu research in 1918-1919, the funds allocated for this research were actually fairly meager. As time passed, Americans became less interested in the pandemic and its causes. And even when funding for medical research dramatically increased after World War II, funding for research on the 1918-1919 pandemic remained limited.
Forgetting the 1918-1919 Pandemic:
In the years following 1919, Americans seemed eager to forget the pandemic. Given the devastating impact of the pandemic, the reasons for this forgetfulness are puzzling.
It is possible, however, that the pandemic’s close association with World War I may have caused this amnesia. While more people died from the pandemic than from World War I, the war had lasted longer than the pandemic and caused greater and more immediate changes in American society.
Influenza also hit communities quickly. Often it disappeared within a few weeks of its arrival. As one historian put it, “the disease moved too fast, arrived, flourished and was gone before…many people had time to fully realize just how great was the danger.” Small wonder, then, that many Americans forgot about the pandemic in the years which followed.
Scientific Milestones in Understanding and Preventing Influenza:
In the early stages of the pandemic, many scientists believed that the agent responsible for influenza was Pfeiffer’s bacillus. Autopsies and research conducted during the pandemic ultimately led many scientists to discard this theory.
In late October of 1918, some researchers began to argue that influenza was caused by a virus. Although scientists had understood that viruses could cause diseases for more than two decades, virology was still very much in its infancy at this time.
It was not until 1933 that the influenza A virus, which causes almost every type of endemic and pandemic influenza, was isolated. Seven years later, in 1940, the influenza B virus was isolated. The influenza C virus was finally isolated in 1950.
Influenza vaccine was first introduced as a licensed product in the United States in 1944. Because of the rapid rate of mutation of the influenza virus, the effectiveness of a given vaccine usually lasts for only a year or two.
By the 1950s, vaccine makers were able to prepare and routinely release vaccines which could be used in the prevention or control of future pandemics. During the 1960s, increased understanding of the virus enabled scientists to develop both more potent and purer vaccines.
Mass production of influenza vaccines continued, however, to require several months lead time.
Twentieth-Century Influenza Pandemics or Global Epidemics:
The pandemic which occurred in 1918-1919 was not the only influenza pandemic of the twentieth century. Influenza returned in a pandemic form in 1957-1958 and, again, in 1968-1969.
These two later pandemics were much less severe than the 1918-1919 pandemic. Estimated deaths within the United States for these two later pandemics were 70,000 excess deaths (1957-1958) and 33,000 excess deaths (1968-1967).