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Public health, preparedness and the World Health Organization response to swine flu in 2009

Gagandeep Kang

DOI: 10.20529/IJME.2010.056


From March 1918 to June 1920, an influenza pandemic swept the world, spreading among the Inuit tribes in the Arctic and to remote Pacific Islanders, killing over 10 million people in the Indian subcontinent. It is estimated that about one in three people was infected and that between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide. At the start of the epidemic, the medical profession believed that influenza was caused by Pfeiffer’s bacillus, but by the end, they were convinced that this was no bacterial disease, but a form of respiratory infection spread by secretions, spitting, coughs and sneezes. There was no cure and supportive therapies were limited, though quacks abounded and recommended strange potions to prevent disease. Unlike the seasonal flu, this new version, or “Spanish flu”, killed mainly young people, with between 2% and 20% of those infected dying. Bodies were buried without coffins in mass graves because there were not enough coffin makers or grave diggers to cope with the number of deaths. By some estimates, 3-6% of the world’s population died in two years. In today’s world, that would mean wiping out the entire population of North America.

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