Corona crisis: can we learn something from the Spanish flu?

Corona crisis: can we learn something from the Spanish flu?

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Lessons from the Spanish flu

Major events are canceled, restaurants and numerous shops are closed. The state orders social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. But are these strict and early measures really effective and necessary to minimize the spread of an outbreak? Here we can learn from the Spanish flu, which in 1918 to 1919 infected over a fifth of the world's population and killed 50 million people.

Professor Dr. med. Stefan E. Pambuccian is a cytologist at the Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois, USA. The pathologist and deputy chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Loyola University Chicago examined data from three studies dealing with the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1919 to derive possible lessons for the current coronavirus pandemic. The results were recently presented in the "Journal of the American Society of Cytopathology".

Sickness rates could be reduced by up to 50 percent

Spanish flu data show that cities that took early, comprehensive isolation and prevention measures - such as school and church closures, mass gathering bans, mandatory mask wear, case isolation, and disinfection and hygiene measures - showed lower disease and mortality rates .

These cities included San Francisco, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Kansas City in the United States. Here, both disease and mortality rates were reduced by 30 to 50 percent compared to cities that issued fewer restrictions. In addition, the current analysis of the data shows that major delays in reaching the highest mortality rate could also be achieved in these cities, which resulted in a lower overall mortality burden.

More isolation = less mortality?

"The stricter the isolation policy, the lower the mortality rate," explains Dr. Pambuccian in a press release on the analysis. He also emphasizes that not everyone in 1918 and 1919 considered the strict measures to be appropriate or effective. "There was skepticism that these measures actually worked," said the pathologist. "But they obviously made a difference." It is estimated that around 675,000 people in the United States died of Spanish flu. There were around 50 million worldwide.

You have to cut back on portability

However, the results from that time cannot be transferred one to one to today, admits Dr. Pambuccian one. After all, the world was a completely different place. So the effects of the First World War still prevailed, barracks were overcrowded, many people lived in poverty with "poor nutrition, poor hygiene, overcrowding of households and communities." In addition, the population and decision-makers would have been ill-prepared due to cognitive laziness and poor medical and nursing care.

"Although the world is very different from 100 years ago, the effectiveness of the measures introduced during the 1918-19 pandemic gives us hope that the current measures will also limit the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic," the professor summarizes . (vb)

You can find out everything about the Spanish flu in the article: Spanish flu - history, causes and symptoms.

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Stefan E. Pambuccian: The COVID-19 pandemic: Implications for the cytology laboratory; in: Journal of the American Society of Cytopathology, 2020,
  • Loyola University Medical Center: Lessons from the Spanish Flu: Cities that Enacted Early Isolation, Other Restrictions Had Significantly Lower Rates of Disease and Mortality (published: March 27th, 2020),

Video: What can we learn from the Spanish flu? Times News (January 2023).