The world has had its share of pandemics in years past caused by viruses. Daily news reports let people know the death and case counts for the current coronavirus. How do these numbers compare to other recent pandemics that have threatened mankind?

To begin with, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a pandemic as a global outbreak of a new virus that is very different from current and recently circulating human seasonal viruses. Pandemics happen when new (novel) viruses emerge that are able to infect people easily and spread from person to person. Most experts believe that viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with a virus cough, sneeze or talk. It’s spread less often when a person touches a surface or object that has a flu virum on it then touches his or her own mouth, nose or eyes.

Viruses can change from year to year and become deadly when the human population has no immunity.

Spanish Flu

The media is making frequent references to the Spanish Flu, which occurred in 1918. It is called the worst severe pandemic in recent history by the CDC, infecting about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population. The CDC said it was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. At least 50 million people died worldwide with about 675,000 deaths in the United States. Symptoms included fever, headache and sore throat.

Some scientists credit an outbreak of something called “la grippe” experienced by soldiers on the front lines during World War I as spreading the Spanish Flu. During the summer of 1918, as troops began to return home on leave, they brought with them the undetected virus that had made them ill. At that time, very little was known about viruses. According to the EcoHealth Alliance, a News of the World report from November 1918 lists the following as recommended precautions against contracting the flu: “Wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply; do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”

The CDC said there was no vaccine to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections associated with it. Control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings. The CDC reports those methods were applied unevenly.

H1N1 (Swine Flu)

From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, the CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases of the Swine Flu, (named after a virus pigs can get) with 12,469 deaths in the United State and about 575,000 worldwide. Globally, 80 percent of the Swine virus-related deaths were estimated to have occurred in people younger than 65 years of age. This differs greatly from typical seasonal influenza epidemics, during which about 70 percent to 90 percent of deaths are estimated to occur in people 65 years and older. The Swine Flu virus was very different from other H1N1 viruses that were circulating at the time of the pandemic. Few young people had any existing immunity but nearly one-third of people more than 60 years old had antibodies against this virus, likely from exposure to an older H1N1 virus earlier in their lives. Since the Swine Flu virus was very different from circulating H1N1 viruses, vaccination with seasonal flu vaccines offered little protection against it.


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus. SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than 24 countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the SARS global outbreak of 2003 was contained. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. SARS is spread by close person-to-person contact.  Its symptoms are similar to those previously mentioned.

2020 Flu

From October 2019 to March 2020, the CDC estimates there have been from 38 million to 54 million cases of the flu with 24,000 to 62,000 deaths.

There are many similarities between the viruses past and present.

A coronavirus is a type of common virus that can infect the nose, sinuses or upper throat. There is no vaccine for coronavirus. The practices of years past can help prevent coronavirus infection:

Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer;

Keep hands and fingers away from eyes, nose, and mouth; and

Avoid close contact with people who are infected.

Again, limiting public gatherings was suggested at the time of the Spanish Flu, but response to that suggestion was not consistent, according to the CDC.

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