The media likes to talk about how millions died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. It’s true, but most deaths were in third world countries and unfortunately the same may happen this time.
When you look at the facts for deaths in Britain you find that a total of 3,000 people died from flu in Manchester in the series of outbreaks in 1918 and early 1919. At the time, the population of the city was more than 425,000.
Most deaths occured in the city centre where housing and living conditions were the worst. Along with appalling pollution from factories and coal fires, homes were damp and overcrowded and people had a poor diet.
It’s reasonable to assume that with the much better living conditions that we have now, improved diet and with the medical knowledge and drugs we have these days, the number of deaths from a similar virus would be far fewer.
It may be that lots of people would get flu, but not many would die from it.
Read a contemporary ‘Report on the Epidemic of Influenza in Manchester, 1918-19’. By James Niven, Medical Officer of Health (PDF document).
In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins has some scathing comments about the way our media and government have ‘lost all ability to judge risk’.
So let’s stop worrying about ourselves and start thinking about those people in poorer countries who are going to be most affected by this.
Update (30 April): misleading scare information in The Telegraph. Health Secretary Alan Johnson is quoted as saying:
‘What is reassuring is that if you take Tamiflu early you make a full recovery. It is just like a dose of flu.’
Thus implying that if you don’t have Tamiflu you won’t ‘make a full recovery’. In fact, even if you get the flu you are very unlikely to die from it. Among children in Manchester who got influenza in 1918 (when there were no anti-virals like Tamiflu) the death rate was less than 1%.
“Hundreds of millions of pounds may have been wasted on a drug for flu that works no better than paracetamol, a landmark analysis has said.” BBC News.