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Weapons against past pandemics buy time for modern medicine

19 May 2020 4:55 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

An empty residential street as Torontonians practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Natalie Workewych

COVID-19 conjures the spectre of the 1918-19 Spanish flu and the power of knowledge.

Not since the Black Death of the 14th century had humanity been so ravaged, but with the Spanish flu we at least knew we were being assaulted by a microscopic enemy, not “miasmas” or “bad air.” 

Just as understanding of disease and healthcare better equipped us to handle the Spanish flu, today’s knowledge makes us more prepared to combat our current pandemic. 

As with past diseases, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is an indiscriminate aggressor. It infects populations with ease, with severity largely determined by age and health status. 

Today, backed by fortune only technological progress can bestow, scientists could quickly identify and understand the novel virus was spreading, and spreading rapidly, throughout the world. Knowing that COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family of viruses, scientists and medical professionals could get to work developing screening tests, trying to identify therapies, and hurriedly moving toward a vaccine. 

Modern medical understanding has been our foremost ally in the struggle against disease, but it’s an ally whose help has come only with time and incremental discoveries. 

The first victims of the Black Death could not have understood their illness was being caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. They only knew what they could see: a rapid progression of blackened boils on the skin, the fever, the aches, the pains, and an almost certain descent into death.

Many of those first affected by the Spanish Flu during its first wave in the spring of 1918 suffered only mildly, leading many experts to believe the illness too mild to be an influenza. With the second wave in the fall of 1918 came the shock of ominous numbers of deaths within hours of initial symptoms. The world took notice. 

Though those who suffered through pandemics of the past could only wish to look to a more medically advanced society, we can look back and benefit from history’s lessons.

We don’t need to wait to know where a disease comes from or to fully understand it to protect ourselves. Strategies of social distancing and self-isolation mitigate the spread of disease have been long employed and remain the most effective for reducing transmission. 

Even imperfect understanding led to practices to limit the spread of plague during the Black Death. Though paramount to trade, ships arriving in Venetian ports were forced to sit at anchor for quaranta giorni - 40 days - before crews could disembark and conduct business. It is from this practice that we derive the word quarantine. 

During the Spanish flu pandemic, people were implored not to shake hands, to avoid interaction with others and to stay indoors. Public spaces such as libraries and schools were widely shut down. In New York City, travel on public transit was staggered to limit person-to-person contact. 

While modern medical treatments and vaccines have saved an untold number of lives, history shows the value of social distancing and isolation of those already sick in reducing disease transmission. 

SARS-CoV-2 has upended the normalcy of our lives, is overwhelming healthcare systems, and risks devastation to the world’s economies. 

Though we face a new pandemic, we are uniquely equipped with the lessons of history and what modern medicine can provide.  

There is redemption in what we know. 


By: Natalie Workewych

Natalie is a PhD Student studying Pharmacology at the University of Toronto. Her academic background includes an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Pharmacology. She hopes to encourage ideas through writing, and bring thoughts on science to anyone the least bit curious.


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