How Can We Avoid Another Global Pandemic?

An investigation into the 1918 flu pandemic has yielded some findings that could help experts improve current health policies, researchers say.

Researchers from the University of Missouri looked at remote regions in North American to see how environmental, nutritional land economic factors determined the effect the pandemic had on them.

The flu pandemic infected more than 500 million people and killed at least 50 million.

“Epidemics such as the Black Death in the 14th century, cholera in the 19th century and malaria have been documented and recorded throughout history,” said Lisa Sattenspiel, professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “While it is probably impossible to consider all the dimensions of pandemics, such as cultural, social and political factors, we can get a ‘snapshot’ by pinpointing similar areas. Our research focused on the 1918 influenza pandemic in Labrador, Canada and Alaska, which are widely separated in space, yet have similar geographic and environmental constraints as well as ethnic overlap.”

In their research, the investigators found that Labrador and Alaska, though separated from other affected regions by a wide geographical divide, were devastated by the pandemic. In fact, they experienced higher death rates than most other parts of the world – 34 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

When Lisa Sattenspiel, professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science at MU, and her colleagues investigated archival materials from the regions, they found that circulating pathogens, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, were part of the reason for the high death rate. Other factors included harsh, stressful winters and lack of food.

Sattenspiel says that during the summer months in Labrador the influx of infected commercial fishermen played an important role in the milder first wave of the pandemic, while during the severe second (fall and winter) wave, the movements of fur traders and hunters were more important.

The researchers also found that transmission rates were higher in harsher climates where people spent more time indoors.

Sattenspiel said that her team’s findings indicated that current planning for battling outbreaks of infectious disease should include programs that improve housing conditions and crowding. Additionally, she said, public health programs should take into account the remoteness of regions and have plans to have placement of nurses and other health care professionals to give vaccines and treatment.

The study was published in the Annals of Anthropological Practice.

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