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Here’s how coronavirus compares to past pandemics

Health officials have dealt with flu, SARS

Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph operators in Jacksonville during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph operators in Jacksonville during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb in the U.S., you may be seeing posts comparing it to other outbreaks.

People are trying to out this outbreak into context by comparing death rates and number of infections, however, it is still hard to compare this pandemic, known as COIVD-19, to others in history because it isn’t over yet.

Here’s how the coronavirus squares up to other pandemics.

1918 Influenza

The 1918 flu pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The illness, dubbed the Spanish flu, rapidly spread worldwide from 1918-1919, infecting nearly a third of the global population. Health records show it killed an estimated 50 million people with approximately 675,000 of those deaths occurring in the United States.

The death rate was for healthy people in the 20-40 year age group was unusual during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

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To this date, there is no consensus regarding where the virus originated.

There were no vaccines or antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections associated with the flu. Public health control efforts resorted to isolation, quarantine, personal hygiene and limitations of public gatherings -- much like how medical leaders are advising to handle the coronavirus. Like during the COVID-19 pandemic, these public health control efforts were applied unevenly across the globe.

Asian flu

Decades after the 1918 influenza infected a third of the world population, the Asian flu would strike.

From 1956-1958 an outbreak of Influenza A would travel from China to the U.S., killing 2 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Its impact on East Asia dubbed this strain the Asian flu.

In its two-year spree, the H2N2 sub-type would kill approximately 69,800 people in the U.S.

This flu varied in symptoms from a minor cough and a slight fever to pneumonia. Those unaffected by this type of the flu were believed to have protective antibodies to other closely related strains of influenza.

The death rate was curbed by the quick development of a vaccine and the availability of antibiotics to treat secondary infections.

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SARS

The severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, according to the CDC.

SARS was first reported in Asia in 2003. In just a matter of months, it spread across the globe to more than 20 countries.

According to the WHO, 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during and 774 people died.

In the U.S. only eight people had laboratory evidence of a SARS infection. Much like how COVID-19 has spread, those impacted by SARS in the U.S. had traveled to other parts of the world where the infection was spreading.

Eventually, SARS was contained in the U.S.

Swine flu

In 2009, the H1N1 virus emerged.

It was detected first in the U.S. and spread quickly across the world. This new H1N1 virus contained a unique combination of influenza genes not previously identified in animals or people, according to the CDC.

Unlike COVID-19, it was the younger population that seemed to be most at risk. Health officials say they had little to no existing immunity to the H1N1 virus. Yet, nearly one-third of people over the age of 60 had antibodies against the virus writing it off as they were likely exposed to an older version of the virus at an earlier period of their lives, according to CDC data.

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Since the swine flu was very different from circulating H1N1 viruses, vaccination with seasonal flu vaccines offered little cross-protection.

After the peak of illness in the U.S., a vaccine was produced. According to the CDC from April 2009 to April 2010 there were approximately 60.8 million cases of the swine flu with around 12,469 deaths.

Though the 2009 flu pandemic primarily affected children and young and middle-aged adults, the CDC says the impact of the H1N1 on the global population during the first year was less severe than that of previous pandemics.

To this day, people are still infected with, hospitalized and die from the swine flu.

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