Revisiting the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918
This week, during the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu epidemic, an international, interdisciplinary workshop will be held in Oslo, Norway, focusing on the social impact of the pandemic. Professor Lisa Sattenspiel, chair of the Department of Anthropology, and two of her graduate students will present talks at the conference at Oslo Metropolitan University.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that roughly one-third of the world’s population became infected with the flu virus during the 1918–19 pandemic, and about 50 million of those infected worldwide died, either from the virus itself or from secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. Until now, much of the research has focused on the biology of the H1N1 virus responsible for the pandemic—where it originated, how and why it spread, and morbidity and mortality rates associated with the virus. This week, during the 100th anniversary of the pandemic, an international, interdisciplinary workshop will be held in Oslo, Norway, focusing on the social impact of the great flu epidemic of 1918. Professor Lisa Sattenspiel, chair of the Department of Anthropology, and two of her graduate students will present talks at the conference at Oslo Metropolitan University.
“We started planning this conference about a year ago, and there will be more conferences through the spring of 2019 because this is when we are in the time period of the major wave,” Sattenspiel says. “The first wave of the flu would have been over in many places at this point, but the main wave occurred during September through December across much of the world. The conference is focusing on the social impact, broadly speaking, so it will include everyone from economists to epidemiologists. It’s an interdisciplinary workshop because there are lots of different kinds of people who look at social impacts.”
Taylor Paskoff at the top of Fløyen, one of the city mountains in Bergen, Hordaland, Norway.
Life Comes to a Standstill
Taylor Paskoff, a doctoral student in anthropology, says her talk will explore the immediate aftermath of the pandemic on the economy of Newfoundland following an extreme excess mortality of young adults. The very young and the elderly still had the highest mortality rate overall, as it typical, but it was the impact on young adults that was so striking.
“The age groups of particular interest to me are young adults 20–44 and elderly people 60-plus. The reason is that typically, in a normal flu year, young adults have the lowest expected mortality, whereas during the 1918 flu it has been observed they had some of the highest mortality rates—more than expected,” Paskoff says. She says people 60 and over had lower-than-normal mortality rates during the pandemic, and one theory is that cohort had some lasting immunity from exposure to the virus during the 1860s, when they were children. Paskoff says Newfoundland’s financial situation was decimated following the epidemic because so many young, working adults died, and it took years for the island’s economy to recover.
Sattenspiel says a similar economic disruption could occur today.
“If we had a new flu strain, the biggest problem would be everyone would get sick,” she says. “The resulting social disruption…imagine if everyone was unable to go to work for two weeks or more, what shuts down as a result. That’s a far more important implication for now than the mortality.” Sattenspiel says estimates of mortality range from 3 to 6 percent during the pandemic, which she says is a huge percentage but nothing compared to a potential worldwide outbreak of Ebola or black plague, both of which have much higher rates of mortality.
“If it’s a new strain, everybody is susceptible, and it’s so infectious that everybody is going to get it,” she says. “It’s almost impossible to control since there is no vaccination for a new strain, so it spreads. Most of the spread is done before anyone even knows they are sick, but the main impact would be the shutting down of the world when everyone gets sick.”
Megan Murray in front of the Leprosy Hospital in Bergen, Hordaland, Norway.
Isolation Hinders Help
Megan Murray is a master’s student in anthropology who studies Inuit ethnic groups, focusing on their social organization such as kinship ties or how closely people are tied together within the village. She also studies how those groups interacted with European traders and other outsiders, the political attitudes towards these ethnic groups, and their access to healthcare.
“There is the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, and below the peninsula, across the Norton Sound, is the Yukon Delta, and there are two different ethnic groups that live in the area—the Inupiaq and the Yup’ik,” Murray says. “The areas are environmentally the same, and since they are so far out on that coast, their main interactions are with merchant vessels from Seattle and trading with the Inuit into Siberia. The Seward Peninsula had one area with a mortality rate of 90% of the population, and right across the sound it was about 30%. My talk involves comparing the severity of the impact and why it was worse in one area compared to the other. The main difference is there are two different cultural groups.”
Murray’s thesis is that because the Inupiaqs are incredibly interactive and all live together, the virus impacted them more severely than the Yup’iks, who live apart from each other, with the men in one house and the women and children in another house. She says the Alaskan government also established quarantine points that helped keep the flu from spreading but prevented doctors and medicine from reaching the tribes.
Paskoff says she has been asked why she and her colleagues care about events that transpired 100 years ago.
“There are a lot of good reasons to care about it,” she says. “The same social pressures that affected mortality 100 years ago exist today, and the same consequences of 100 years ago could happen today. One of the larger applications of our work is that it is important to focus on preparedness rather than prevention. We have all of this knowledge about what happened 100 years ago, and that is more constructive to use rather than just making sure everyone has a vaccine or trying to prevent a new outbreak because flu is so unpredictable.”