What the Covid-19 pandemic looks like compared to the 1918 influenza pandemic


EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS)– From deaths to life-saving vaccines, there’s a wide variety of similarities and differences between the 1918 influenza pandemic and Covid-19 pandemic.

A recent study from Michigan State University took a deep dive into the two pandemics that are 102 years apart.

Siddharth Chandra, the lead author of the study, is a professor of economics at James Madison College. He is also a professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at MSU as well as the Director of the Asian Studies Center.

Chandra has been studying the 1918 influenza pandemic since 2010 and watched what he had been studying for ten years come to life in March 2020.

“It was a really bizarre feeling, ” said Chandra, ” in the statistics, in the books that I’d read, in the stories that I’d read of people telling their experiences in 1918 it sounded all too familiar.”

Covid-19 and influenza are similar because they’re both a respiratory virus and can be deadly. They both first spiked in the spring around March and are also similar when it comes to vaccines.

“We had no vaccine for the SAR-CoV-2 either and so we were in the same at least initially in the same helpless situation that populations found themselves in 1918,” said Chandra.

When it comes to deaths, Chandra says in 1918, there was an estimated 675,000 Americans who died from influenza. So far during the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been nearly 500,000 deaths nationwide. There is also a bigger population now than there was 102 years ago.

The 1918 pandemic actually lasted two years and there was a major spike in 1920.

“When February came around, February 1920, and the weather warmed just slightly, there was a fourth wave of influenza that hit Michigan,” said Chandra.

He added that the fourth wave was the worst in Michigan, but other states didn’t experience the same spike.

Graph showing the influenza pandemic from 1918-1920.
COURTESY: Siddharth Chandra

In 1918, Chandra says health experts weren’t sure what was causing influenza and thought it was bacteria that caused it, then later discovered that a virus caused it.

Another big difference between the influenza pandemic and the Covid-19 pandemic is the age group that had the highest number of deaths.

The graph and chart below show that in 1918, people between the ages of 20-40 had the highest fatality rate:

Chandra says the key now, is to not let history repeat itself.

“We have to immunize enough people so that the reservoir, the pool of people who are susceptible is so small that our population as a whole will not be at risk of another wave,” said Chandra.

To see the information from the study you can click here.

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