A History of Flu Pandemics

History has a tendency to repeat itself. Like all historic events, flu pandemics come and go and sometimes come back again, and they do so in different ways and with varying ferocity.

The worst pandemic on record is the Spanish Flu of 1918-19: 20 to 50 million people are believed to have died from it.

History, however, also teaches us that nothing is worse than fighting the last war—or fighting a past pandemic, not the current one.

This arguably happened in 1976, when fears of a catastrophic swine flu pandemic such as 1918 triggered interventions that ended up killing more people than died from the flu strain in question.

As journalists, we can consult history to inform our questions and investigations—including officials’ and critics’ interpretations of that history.
Does the flu strain of concern have the potential to become as lethal as the 1918 strain? How do we know? Is a new pandemic vaccine comparable to the vaccine used in 1976? If not, how is it different, and what do the differences mean for people’s safety?

With questions such as these in mind, this chapter takes a look at the events that stand out in flu pandemic history.