Swine flu, Hong Kong Flu, three other pandemics that shook the world

FOR the first time in world history, a disease called COVID – 19 which has proved difficult to contain, confining millions of people to their homes and grounding the global economy emerged from Wuhan, China in December 2019.

For centuries, several diseases have defined human history and changed the world’s perception about invisible pathogen capable of bringing human beings down to earth.

The ICIR chronicles the notable global pandemics that have hit the world from the swine flu outbreak to the current COVID – 19 which has claimed the lives of millions of people and also provided opportunities for understanding how to keep the future pandemics at bay.

The Spanish Flu (1918 – 1919)

One of the world’s most deadly pandemic described by doctors as the”greatest medical holocaust in history”.

The flu is believed to have started in crowded army training camps during World War I, but there is no universal agreement where the virus originated. It spread worldwide during 1918-1919.

The disease was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin, the Spanish flu pandemic resulted in a high mortality rate for young adults, while children and people with weaker immune systems had low mortality rates.

Without a vaccine to protect against influenza infection at the time and treat secondary bacterial infections associated with the Spanish flu, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.

It was estimated that about 500 million people which is one-third of the world’s population then were infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

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The contagious flu which was caused by A/H3N2 influenza virus which is a subtype of viruses that can infect birds and humans by mutating into several strains. It is associated with mild or severe symptoms such as high fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, headache, coughing, and fatigue.

The first outbreak was recorded in Hong Kong in 1968, infecting and 500,000 Hong Kong residents before spreading to different parts of the world. The virus was highly contagious, a factor that facilitated its rapid global dissemination.

The outbreak was the third influenza pandemic to occur in the 20th century, however, the H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza A virus.

Over 1 million lives across the world were lost to influenza while 100,000 deaths recorded in the United States. The Hong Kong flu registered a high death rate for adults who were above 65 years, according to the Pandemic Severity Index the disease had a low case fatality ratio because of its low death rate.

It was first reported in Guangdong, China in 2002, when doctors noticed that patients admitted had a highly contagious germ, unaware that they were also at risk of a lethal infection.

SARS is a viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus called SARS-associated coronavirus, SARS-CoV – 1, but since 2004 there have not been any known cases of SARS reported anywhere in the world until COVID – 12.

Coronaviruses are viruses that circulate among animals with some of them also known to infect humans, SARS-CoV-1 is transmitted to humans from civet cats.

The disease had spread to several parts of Asia, Europe and North America, despite being contagious killed 774 people worldwide.

Its symptoms include common cold to more severe fever, chills, muscle aches, headache, dry cough and shortness of breath.

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The SARS pandemic was eventually brought under control in July 2003, following a policy of isolating people suspected of having the condition and screening all passengers travelling by air from affected countries for signs of the infection.

There’s currently no cure for SARS, but research to find a vaccine is still ongoing.

In 2009, the World Health Organisation, WHO, officially declared the “swine flu” a pandemic after it was first identified in Mexico in April 2009. The flu became known as swine flu because of it’s similarity to flu viruses that affect pigs.

The scientific name for swine flu is A/H1N1 and shortened to “H1N1”. Statistics by the WHO reveals that the virus had killed more than 18,000 people after it appeared in April 2009 hinting that the total mortality including unconfirmed deaths from the H1N1 strain was higher.

Studies carried out at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in May 2009 showed that children had no immunity to the new strain but adults, older than 60, had some degree of immunity.

In June 2010, Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, BMJ, published an editorial criticising WHO for calling the swine flu a “pandemic” too soon and also alleged that some of the experts advising WHO on the pandemic had financial ties with drug companies which were producing antivirals and vaccines for the flu after an investigative report.

On 12, April 2010, Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s top influenza expert, said that the system leading to the declaration of a pandemic led to confusion about H1N1 circulating around the world and he expressed concern that there was a failure to communicate in regard to uncertainties about the new virus, which turned out to be not as deadly as feared.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan at the time said she appointed 29 flu experts from outside the organisation to conduct a review of WHO’s handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic for balance and fairness.

COVID – 19 (2019-)

SARS-CoV-2 is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans until the first case was recorded in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Coronavirus are viruses that circulate among animals with some of them also known to infect humans

The strain of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was given to the novel 2019 coronavirus, while the name for the resulting disease associated with the virus is COVID – 19.

As of 30 March 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak had caused over 700, 000 cases globally since the first case, more than 30, 000 people are known to have died.

Infected persons might have the virus between 1 to 14 days before developing symptoms. The most common symptom of COVID-19 includes fever, fatigue, and dry cough.



    Supply shortages affected trade globally due to panic buying, increased usage of goods to fight the pandemic, disruption to factories and logistics due to complete shut down of activities in different countries in a bid to contain the virus.

    As of February 28, stock markets worldwide saw their largest single-week declines since the 2008 financial crisis as global stock markets crashed in March 2020, with a freefall of several of the world’s major indices.

    As the pandemic spreads, global conferences and events across technology, fashion, and sports are being cancelled or postponed. While the monetary impact on the travel and trade industry is yet to be estimated, it is likely to be in the billions.

    You can also read: The History of Influenza Pandemics By The Numbers.


    Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

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