Lessons of the Spanish flu: Misinformation leads to disaster worse than war

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In 1918, at the height of World War I, the Spanish flu killed as many as 100 million people, including almost 700,000 Americans. Historians like Mount Vernon native Kenneth Davis say ignorance was as responsible for the suffering as the virus itself.

“The health department knew this was a danger. They knew the influenza was already making its way to Army bases, the Philadelphia Naval Yard. They were concerned about large crowds, but they allowed this to go on," says Davis.

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The Spanish flu was particularly deadly for not only the very young and old – but to young adults aged 20-40. That is very different from the coronavirus, which is most dangerous for people over 65. 

Part 1: The lessons of the Spanish flu epidemic: Historian draws parallels to COVID-19 

Medical care has come a long way since 1918, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few more lessons the Spanish flu can teach.

In 1918, the Spanish flu nearly disappeared over the summer as flu viruses generally do, but the second wave was much deadlier.

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“People thought it was over,” says Davis.

Part of the problem was science didn't have an answer, causing desperate people to buy whatever promised a solution. Even today, there is misinformation about products that can shield people from COVID-19. 

"One of the most important things that didn't happen in 1918 was paying attention to the scientists," says Davis. "The important business of the day, which was winning the war, certainly took precedence over public health and that's an important lesson of the Spanish flu...We shouldn't misplace our priorities."

The Spanish flu killed more soldiers in 1918 than were killed on the battlefield.

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