By Linda Weiford, WSU News

One hundred years ago next month, the deadliest influenza pandemic in history began its march around the globe. An early warning sign came March 11, when 100 soldiers stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, were sickened in a single day.

The flu of 1918 went on to become a mass killer, infecting a third of the world’s population and taking the lives of more than 50-million people, many in their 20s and 30s.

As the U.S. slogs through 2018’s widespread flu season, the somber anniversary of the 1918 pandemic should remind us why it’s crucial to prevent a similar deadly influenza from rearing up again, said infectious disease specialist George Novan, clinical professor of medicine at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“Though we’ve come a long way in preventing, treating and monitoring flu in the past century, a virus like influenza is a master at adapting and mutating,” he said.

Our robustly interconnected world, combined with the flu virus’s remarkable capacity to mutate, increase the odds of another pandemic occurring, he explained.

About 1.9 billion more people inhabit the planet than a century ago. What’s more, routine jet travel can transport the airborne virus to new cities and continents in a matter of hours.

“We have vaccines, antiviral drugs, large hospitals and effective public health systems that didn’t exist in 1918. We also have antibiotics to treat secondary infections,” Novan said.

Many victims of the pandemic died from secondary bacterial pneumonia that developed in lungs made vulnerable by the virus, he added. “Had antibiotics existed back then, many lives probably would have been saved,” he said.

Yet despite 100 years of scientific advances, the flu virus continues to surprise and bewilder. Due to its unpredictability, health officials never know how bad each seasonal outbreak will be or how well the vaccine – reformulated each year based on best estimates — will work.

“The virus mutates rapidly and can infect animals as well as humans, enabling new viruses to emerge that challenge our immune systems and the vaccines designed to protect us,” said Novan.

Genetic changes are typically small from year to year, but occasionally they are major enough to spawn a new virus. When this happens, most people have little or no protection against the unfamiliar pathogen. Consequently, it sweeps through populations worldwide and produces a pandemic.

Quest for a new vaccine

Three more pandemics have occurred since 1918: The Asian flu in 1957, Hong Kong flu in 1968, and the swine strain in 2009. Although relatively mild compared to 1918, “there’s nothing to say we won’t ever face a strain as virulent as in 1918,” said Novan.

Should that happen, a “universal” vaccine would be our best defense, he said. Coincidently, the U.S. Senate is considering a recently-introduced bill to spend $1 billion over the next five years to develop one.

Instead of getting a yearly shot based on educated guesswork, the universal version would provide protection for years against multiple flu strains, including new mutant strains to guard against future pandemics.

“Ideally, the vaccine would protect us against most forms of the virus. It would also mean getting one shot every ten years, but still with the need for scientists to monitor influenza viral changes to ensure that the vaccine will continue to work,” he said.


Also on WSU Insider: The Health & Wellness medical clinic on the Pullman campus reports increased cases of influenza, and provides tips for avoiding the flu along with helpful links to University policies in case you need them.