One hundred years ago, a novel pandemic influenza virus spread rapidly around the world. It killed about 1 to 2 percent of the human population, primarily young and often healthy adults.
The centennial of the 1918 pandemic is a good time to take stock of how far the world has come since this historic health disaster—and to face the sobering fact that several key mysteries have yet to be resolved.
We and many other researchers around the world have been hard at work uncovering and analyzing old data sitting in dusty libraries, church records, and long-forgotten vital statistics books. Together, our team has scoured archives from a number of cities and countries around the world, including in the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Japan, and Denmark.
Armed with these data, we can reconstruct epidemics of the past. By understanding the epidemiological patterns associated with the 1918 outbreak and other pandemics, we hope that public health officials can better prepare for future health disasters.
Digging through archives
Gathering evidence from century-old death records is often tedious and challenging. One hundred years ago, death records were not systematically archived and preserved in many areas of the world, particularly in low-income countries.
Consequently, we sometimes must blindly search for records in cemeteries, public and military archives, parishes, and churches—a task with no guarantee of success.