A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that thousands of health workers may have died in the response to the 1918-19 flu pandemic in the United States. According to the American Journal of Public Health’s “Internal Review of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Preparation and Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” the CDC implemented a rigorous public health response protocol (PPRP) that reduced the death toll by at least 80 percent. But the report also describes dozens of low-level deaths, including 44 health workers at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami during the epidemic. That was the first hospital to admit patients with confirmed flu and at one point reported more flu cases than the entire country had seen the year before. Some 70% of the almost 1,000 deaths at Jackson Memorial during the epidemic were related to the influenza, and 49 were health workers.
The report also suggests that cases of new outbreaks were a permanent, complicating part of a pandemic response. In particular, the virus’s resistance to some drugs, introduced during the 1918-19 outbreak, “renders medical interventions no longer useful.” The 1918 flu was responsible for at least 25 million deaths in the United States and about twice that in Europe. The current CDC report also says that despite several high-profile efforts to prevent a resurgence of the 1918 flu, the health system was ill-prepared in the aftermath of the pandemic. Infectious disease expert Lewis C. Nelson, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, took up the theme in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, saying that the “real challenge” is to prevent future pandemics. He told The Associated Press that preventing another pandemic in the near future will require “modifying evolutionary biology of the influenza viruses themselves,” and that that might mean finding solutions to deadly respiratory and neurochemical viruses, which is “one of the most fundamental research challenges we have.”
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