Looking forward: Are we prepared for a deadly pandemic like the Spanish Flu?


WATCH: On Sunday, we brought you back to the deadliest pandemic the world has ever seen – the Spanish Flu of 1918. The deadly strain of flu travelled back with soldiers returning from the First World War and killed three to five per cent of the world’s population. While that was 100 years ago, could this ever happen again? Kori Sidaway reports.

It was a disease to end all others. One-third of humanity was infected and 100 million died worldwide.

The Spanish Flu crept into every corner of the globe on the backs of soldiers returning from the First World War.

It was the first global migration of that kind, but fast forward to today, that kind of movement is commonplace.

“We have way more mobility, people can fly across the ocean and back in a day, and that’s definitely a way we know diseases travel,” said Dr. Dee Hoyano,  Island Health’s infectious disease specialist.

In Ross Bay Ceremony, there are rows of soldiers graves, many dates 1919. It’s the year after the war, and it was the Spanish flu that ultimately brought these soldiers to their death, begging the question, could something like this happen in 2018?

We know a pandemic is a real possibility,” said Hoyano.

“The experience we had from the devastating pandemic like the Spanish flu is something that we always keep in mind.”

Following the Spanish Flu, international bodies strengthened their surveillance systems, but because of growing globalization, urbanization, and an increase in movement, viruses were able to spread faster and further.

Then in 2003, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hits and completely changes the conversation.

“We were one of the countries that was directly affected by SARS,” said Hoyano.

“All of our health systems had to scramble to cope and deal with that.”

Since then, international health regulations, national surveillance and lab analysis of viruses were all beefed up, but viruses work faster than scientists.

Vaccines take months, sometimes years to be discovered, developed and distributed, so doctors say the first line of defence may be simpler than you think.

“It’s going to be all of society coming together doing the traditional stuff like hand washing and staying home when you’re sick,” said Hoyano.

Infectious disease specialists say it’s not a question of if, but when, a new virus capable of infecting people worldwide develops.

But the biggest current day-to-day threat?

“I think pandemic is a concern, and the public health community and governments are interested in monitoring and preparing for. But I think for the day-to-day reality of most people’s lives it’s still going to be the more common diseases that are going to be the bigger threat to your health,” said Hoyano.

And Hoyano says those dangers are increasingly diseases we already have vaccines for, but moire and more people are choosing not to vaccinate.

“Vaccination rates are dropping in lots places, but they are offered for free in Canada and people need to take advantage of that,” said Hoyano.

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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