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Experts can draw from 1918 flu epidemic

International 20 Mar, 2020 Follow News

Face masks help prevent infection

The 1918 influenza outbreak killed over 50 million people

Sunlight and water sports are ideal recuperative activities in Cayman

Fresh air at Rum Point is a great natural medicine

The coronavirus pandemic has destroyed lives and disrupted life for everyone on the planet. It has seen shutting down borders to mandatory quarantines by crisis hit governments worldwide as they take drastic steps to stem this scary epidemic.

Past outbreaks provide a blueprint for governments navigating the threat of Covid-19, which has spread to more than 200,000 people worldwide to virtually every country. Thousands have died but the fatalities have not plateaued off yet.

Pandemics such as the 1918 influenza offer plenty of pointers though. Clear communication from the federal government was the key then and that remains so today in our super-connected lives.

“The main lesson from 1918 is very clear: that you tell the truth in a public health setting,” said John Barry, author of the “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”

The 1918 influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States. The pandemic occurred in three waves between spring 1918 to the spring of 1919. During World War I, governments had limited resources to fight it.

Public health experts agree transparency from all governments is key in containing this pandemic a century later. “We need to have a unified message that is based on evidence and we need to explain what is known and what is not known, and there’s a fair bit that’s not known about this coronavirus, which makes it a little bit more difficult than some of those that we’ve seen in the past,” said Wendy Mariner, professor of public health law at Boston University.

Fresh air, sunlight and improvised face masks were effective measure a century ago and there’s no reason why those methods shouldn’t be helpful now.

As the current crisis unfolds, governments are enforcing quarantine and isolation, and public gatherings are being phased out. Health officials took the same approach a century ago when influenza was a mass killer. It still is today but has become a factor of modern life.

Medics found that severely ill flu patients nursed outdoors recovered better than those treated indoors. That should inspire residents of the Cayman Islands as we have the ideal climate for rehabilitation, al fresco. Public Beach, Rum Point and Smith Cove are brilliant places to destress.

A combination of fresh air and sunlight prevented deaths among patients and infections among medical staff in 1918. That still rings true today. There is scientific support for this. Research shows that outdoor air is a natural disinfectant. Fresh air can kill the flu virus and other harmful germs. Equally, sunlight is germicidal and there is now evidence it can kill the flu virus. When people are rehabilitating from this kind of illness, fresh air and natural vitamin D from sun rays is as good a medicine as anything prescribed in a pharmacy. Trips along the coast road to East End and North Side are powerful healers.

During the great pandemic, two of the worst places to be were military barracks and troop ships. Overcrowding and bad ventilation put soldiers and sailors at high risk of catching influenza and the other severe illnesses that often followed it, like pneumonia, dehydration, ear and sinus infections.

Fresh air is a natural disinfectant, and in Cayman there are guaranteed no nasty side effects like industrial pollution and numerous city toxins. Face masks are helpful but wearing a face mask is certainly not an iron-clad guarantee to not getting sick. Viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks. However, masks are effective at capturing droplets, which is a main transmission route of coronavirus, and some studies have estimated a roughly fivefold protection versus no barrier alone - although others have found lower levels of effectiveness.

The expectation is that when Covid-19 is under control – hopefully within a few months – temporary hospitals and isolation tents may become a permanent feature of modern life. The 1918 flu outbreak forced improved medical protocols, but recent history dictates that new measures are essential. Outbreaks like swine flu, MARS, Ebola, dengue and zika was a precursor to coronavirus. It means that post Covid-19 the whole world should be prepared for the next unwanted, yet inevitable epidemic.


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