Next global pandemic could be even more deadly than 1918 flu

Written by By CNN Staff Writer

A pharmaceutical company researcher has warned that the next pandemic is likely to be more lethal than the most infamous — the 1918-19 Spanish Flu — because advances in medicine mean cases are “slower to catch.”

“Each time we get closer and closer, it is going to be more effective, but the virus is going to mutate quickly to mimic the human immune system,” Jack Rimington, professor of virology at Imperial College London, told CNN.

“We don’t have any immunity to this particular virus, which means it can run rampant.”

The 1918-19 outbreak killed between 25 and 49 million people worldwide, according to figures from the World Health Organization, although some estimates are as high as 100 million.

The flu began in China, quickly travelled north to Russia and Africa and was a global epidemic by the end of the year. While symptoms, which included fever, headache, vomiting and difficulty breathing, affected the healthy and those suffering from a chronic disease, some died from the blood poisoning known as SARS.

Rimington said the next pandemic could follow this same general pattern, but stressed that high death rates were a “daunting prospect.”

Most people who contracted the 1918 pandemic had no symptoms and because it was so common in human society, people could be “immune and responsive to it” this time around, he said.

“That gives rise to these [happening] much more rapidly, because [people] don’t know they are getting it, and it spreads more rapidly.”

Pertussis ‘not easy to control’

Pertussis is a respiratory disease that causes cough, wheezing and the “dip in air pressure in the chest wall” that causes “terrible sudden death,” according to the United Nations’ World Health Organization. It spreads through sneezing, coughing and the contact of infected droplets with contaminated surfaces or water.

Since 2009, it has killed more than 48,000 people, a figure that has barely budged since a marked decline in the illness, according to WHO figures. Since the 1970s, the incidence of the disease has remained constant.

Rimington expressed concern that it would be difficult to stamp out the disease due to the ease with which the virus can be spread.

“It’s very easy to make somebody cough, very easy to transmit, very easy to treat … so the numbers of infections are expected to increase and rise fast,” he said.

“If the previous pattern is what we see … we expect to see more deaths as the rate of infection increases and decreases.”

WHO officials believe the disease is primarily spread between people through respiratory droplets, however they say a vaccine remains “an urgent priority” because the new strains of the bacteria need to be protected against.

“Over the next few decades, we really need to focus our investment in developing a vaccine against the diphtheria, pertussis and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) subtypes of pertussis,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on February 1.

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