100 years on from the Spanish Flu. Protecting ourselves from infectious diseases

Aug 6, 2018 | BLOG

By: David Sinclair, Director, ILC

2018 marks the 100th Anniversary of Spanish Flu. The deadly influenza (flu) pandemic infected some 500 million people and resulted in deaths of between 50 and 100 million people. 17 million people may have died in India and half a million Americans lost their lives. Spanish Flu probably killed more people than the Black Death and more people in 24 weeks than AIDS did in 24 years.

The Spanish Flu wasn’t a one off. Since 1918 the world has witnessed three other flu pandemics. Asian Flu in the late 1950s killed 1 million people and the 1968 Hong Kong Flu infected an estimated half a million people. The 2009 H1N1 Pandemic saw between 150,000 and half a million deaths across the world.

Yet despite the obvious risks of a future pandemic, academics and policymakers are concerned about growing complacency about the risks of infectious diseases.

Recent research by ILC-UK has highlighted how flu vaccination uptake has been falling across Europe.

Such complacency is misplaced. In the US, the flu continues to kill between 3,000 and 49,000 people per year. In 2014/2015 the flu was blamed for an increase in winter mortality among older people in the UK.

There are fears that the world may be on the brink of another infectious disease pandemic. Just last week the Daily Mail ran a story claiming “A global pandemic of a flu-like virus could kill 900 million people if it started to spread tomorrow”.

Climate change, global conflict, and increasing levels of migration and global travel increase the risk of diseases developing and spreading around the world very quickly. At the same time, humans are increasingly encroaching onto new environments, bringing together domestic and farmed animals closer to other wildlife.

In some those places most at risk of infectious diseases, there is an inadequate supply of healthcare workers to limit the spread of disease. There are also fears that that antibiotic and antiviral resistance may reduce our ability to recover from disease. The potential for information about disease to travel around the world quickly could spread significant fear and have major economic repercussions.

Protecting against infectious diseases is much more than protecting against the flu. ILC-UK are concerned that we need to tackle the growing complacency about infectious diseases and over the next six months we will be working, on a series of events across the world (Canada, UK, Belgium, US) where we will explore:

  • What might the impact of a future pandemic on longevity?
  • How real is the risk of future infectious disease pandemics?
  • Is the risk of infectious disease increasing?
  • Are policymakers across the world doing enough to protect adults against infectious diseases?
  • What is the role for vaccination across the life-course in terms of protecting adults and children against infectious disease?
  • What else should be done to ensure that the world doesn’t ever witness another “Spanish Flu”?

Infectious diseases pose significant risks to longevity and healthy ageing. We hope that through this project we will identify new policy solutions to help minimise the risk to health. ILC-UK would be interested in your thoughts. Please come to our events or let us know what you think needs to be done.

David Sinclair

Director, ILC

David has worked in policy and research on ageing and demographic change for 15 years. David has a particular interest in older consumers, adult vaccination, active ageing, financial services, and the role of technology in an ageing society. He has a strong knowledge of UK and global ageing society issues, from healthcare to pensions and from housing to transport.