The recent flu outbreak has been undeniably devastating, but the good news is that flu season has peaked for this year. The bad news? A secondary strain of the virus has popped up and could start making the rounds. The 2017-2018 flu season has been one of the worst in recent history, with the CDC estimating that it will cause at least 56,000 deaths in the United States alone before it’s over. While that number is nothing to sneeze at, it pales in comparison to the worst flu outbreaks in history, some of which killed millions of people.
The single worst flu pandemic in recent history, however, was the 2009 “swine flu” outbreak that spread across the world and caused widespread panic. You might remember China quarantined a group of students and three of their teachers in a hotel out of fear that one of them might have been exposed to the flu via a passenger on their plane. And their fears weren’t unjustified. It is now estimated that the flu pandemic of 2009-2010 killed an estimated 284,500 people.
The next deadliest flu outbreak was the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968-1969, which started in Hong Kong and spread across Asia. Soldiers returning from Vietnam brought it back to the United States, and it soon spread to Japan, Africa, and South America. This widespread strain of the flu had a fairly low death rate, all things considered, but terrifyingly still killed an estimated one million people.
Deadlier yet, however, was the Asian flu pandemic, which started in China in 1956 and ended in 1958. During that time, it killed two million people, although some estimates claim the death toll was twice as high. The virus that caused this particular outbreak later combined with another strain of flu and mutated into the flu virus that caused the Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1968.
However, it’s the Russian flu pandemic of 1889-1890 that earned the dubious honor of being the first flu pandemic in the modern world. It started in Saint Petersburg and took only four months to spread across the northern hemisphere, thanks to railroads and transatlantic travel. It killed around one million people.
But the single deadliest year for the flu in history was 1918. That’s the year the Spanish flu swept the globe. During the pandemic, life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years because so many people were dying. The flu killed more people than World War I, which was being fought in Europe at the time. Half a billion people were infected with the virus, and it killed somewhere in the order of 50 to 100 million people, three to five percent of the world’s total population at the time.
However, thanks to improved sanitation, vaccines, and increasing awareness of how illness is spread, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a flu outbreak of this magnitude ever again. But just in case, arming yourself with the 20 Habits That Slash Your Flu Risk will help keep you and your loved ones safe.
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