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100 years: Knowledge of the Spanish flu enhances our preparedness for future pandemics

Unique Danish data gives Professor Lone Simonsen an insight into how the Spanish Flu occurred 100 years ago. The insight helps to provide an impression of how future pandemics may behave.

The desk is full of historical material to be searched thoroughly for clues that can inform about the burden and signature patterns of historical pandemics and this knowledge make us wiser about the pandemics we may face in the future.

The desk is Professor Lone Simonsen’s and she has been researching epidemics and pandemics for several decades, including the Spanish flu.

This year, it is 100 years since the 1918 Spanish flu was raging, and within a couple of years the pandemic virus killed up to 50 million people globally, corresponding to about 1-2% of the world's population. It is impossible to say exactly how many Danes died of the Spanish flu, but depending on the sources, the number lies somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000.

»It was the mother of all influenza pandemics and forms the basis for our understanding of how a severe pandemic could look in the future« she says. And there are still unresolved questions about it, including the young age of most victims.   

Although the Spanish flu occurred 100 years ago, it is still important to research its patterns and propagation.

»The more we understand about the Spanish flu and about what happened at the time, the more we can understand what could happen in the future and how we can defend ourselves against the next pandemic« explains the professor from Roskilde University.

It is interesting that 100 years after such a major pandemic, there are still many loose ends to explore

Pandemics are caused by novel viral pathogens crossing over from animals, and is something that happens with regular intervals and must be taken seriously.

»We sometimes forget that in the not so distant past severe pandemics such as cholera killed up to 10% of the population in some Danish towns. That is one out of every ten people you know in just a couple of months. We don’t really see that kind of disaster anymore, but there is really no reason why it could not happen again in the future« explains Lone Simonsen.