Outbreaks before the coronavirus: what can we learn from the past?

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Based on the live data available at the time of writing, the raw mortality rate of COVID-19 is estimated to be 10 times higher than influenza, making the reach of the pandemic a vital health risk. While experts can estimate the economic impact of pandemics such as the coronavirus, the exact impact varies depending on how many people are affected, how severely it affects them, and what societal interventions are needed to stem its spread. Back in 2005, World Bank officials predicted, for example, that a global flu pandemic could kill tens of millions of people. The Great Influenza Pandemic is a far more serious threat to human health than any other outbreak in recent history. The pandemic, which lasted from 1918-20, is estimated to have caused more than 1.5 million deaths and $1 billion in economic damage. 

COVID-19 to come even close to the outbreak of 1918/20 seems remote at this point. Lessons from the Great Influenza Pandemic and other major pandemics of the twentieth century can help manage the effects of today’s coronavirus pandemic. The spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 has led to sharp financial volatility and falling nominal interest rates, as well as contagion and deaths. Intensive public action was also one reason why SARS, which led to the deaths of more than 1.5 million people in China and the United States, was eliminated from the population. The researchers found that during the first outbreak, Guangzhou had a smaller epidemic size than the peak in Wuhan, resulting in a reduction in deaths and an increase in public health spending of about 10%. One difference, however, is that those infected were quite sick before they became highly contagious, whereas people seemed relatively contagious when they began to develop symptoms. COVID-19 has a lower mortality rate than Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has a death rate of 34%. Within a few months, respiratory illnesses caused by an unprecedented coronavirus paralyzed entire cities and countries. 

The epicenter in Wuhan, China, experienced the worst of the initial outbreak, but seems to be getting things under control(according to the Chinese government), while huge secondary outbreaks have occurred in Europe and the US. On 11 March, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that a pandemic was being declared, the first time that a coronavirus had caused such an outbreak. The disease was first reported on New Year’s Eve, and in the weeks that followed researchers linked the outbreak to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses. In an interview with the New York Times on March 10, he shared his hopeful stance on the pandemics, saying it was the “first pandemic in history” that could be brought under control.Pandemics are not a new phenomenon and have been part of human society for thousands of years, with previous outbreaks dating back to the 1580’s and the first flu pandemic. Between 1918 and 1919, there were at least four influenza pandemics in the United States, after a single outbreak, known as Spanish flu, killed more than 21 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919. According to the US Department of Defense report, more than twice as many American soldiers died in World War I in 1919 and 1918. The researchers provide an answer that has huge implications for public policy: If an endemic 2019-nCoV is circulating permanently in the human population, what would be the best response to it? It is possible, as Dr. Michael O’Brien, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, San Diego, told STAT on Saturday, that quarantine and travel bans will first stop the outbreak and then eradicate the microbes. But this will take time. Sadly, nobody knows, exactly how much time is needed.


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