This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Did You Remember That It's Been Almost 100 Years Since the Spanish Flu Epidemic?

In August of 1918, just as World War I was ending, the Spanish influenza hit the world scene, killing tens of millions of people--more than had died in the war itself. To celebrate the millennium of this horrific event, a new book is coming out and, although it isn't yet available in the U.S., it was just reviewed in The Economist. The book is titled Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, and it is by Laura Spinney, an English writer.
BY EARLY 1920, nearly two years after the end of the first world war and the first outbreak of Spanish flu, the disease had killed as many as 100m people— more than both world wars combined. Yet few would name it as the biggest disaster of the 20th century. Some call it the “forgotten flu”. Almost a century on, “Pale Rider”, a scientific and historic account of Spanish flu, addresses this collective amnesia.
Now, for the record, if you've read my Population text, you will remember my talking about this (page 143 in the 12th edition), in which I reference a book by Alfred Crosby, that came out in 1989. The title of his book was America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918.  As you can see, we have a need to keep reminding ourselves about this pandemic!

What seems to be particularly useful about the new book by Spinney is her global perspective--showing how much of the world was affected by this flu--and her discussion of how this very importantly moved along the global research on viruses.
Influenza, like all viruses, is a parasite. Laura Spinney traces its long shadow over human history; records are patchy and uncertain, but Hippocrates’s “Cough of Perinthus” in 412BC may be its first written description. Influenza-shaped footprints can be traced down the centuries: the epidemic that struck during Rome’s siege of Syracuse in 212BC; the febris italica that plagued Charlemagne’s troops in the ninth century. The word “influenza” started being used towards the end of the Middle Ages from the Italian for “influence”—the influence of the stars. That was the state of knowledge then; in some ways at the start of the 20th century it was little better.
Now, to be sure, we don't usually think of a virus as being a parasite--e.g., malaria is caused by a parasite, whereas influenza is not considered to be a parasite under any definition of which I am aware, but that's not important right now. The point is that 100 years ago were just beginning to get a handle on bacteria, but viruses were not yet capable of being seen under existing microscopes. Once better equipment was invented in the 1930s, viruses moved from the theoretical to the real, and we were able to cope better with these things, figuring out over time how to invent vaccines for as many deadly viruses as we can. 

These stories are important reminders of how vastly different a world we live in today than did people of 100 years ago. 

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