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Lessons we can learn from the Spanish flu

Strict rules and isolation were imposed in Ireland in 1910 to fight the Spanish flu pandemic, writes Ida Milne

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PANDEMIC: ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ by Edvard Munch (1919) is one of the few works of art on the subject from the time. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Norway

PANDEMIC: ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ by Edvard Munch (1919) is one of the few works of art on the subject from the time. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Norway

PANDEMIC: ‘Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu’ by Edvard Munch (1919) is one of the few works of art on the subject from the time. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Norway

As the coronavirus threatens human health around the planet, we can look to the past to see the impact previous disease events caused society. The pandemic that most people compare it to is the 1918-1919 or 'Spanish' influenza pandemic which circled the globe in a little over a year, causing upwards of 50 million deaths, which is estimated to have infected between one fifth and half of the world's population.

In Ireland, conservatively it killed 23,000 people, mostly clustered into three waves between June 1918 and April 1919. A broad rule of reckoning among international researchers of the disease is that 2.5pc of those who caught it died, which suggests about 800,000 sufferers on the island out of a population of four million.

This is a different disease, and we live in a different world, with much improved environments, medical expertise, and more educated citizens. But for a historian of disease, the social impacts are arrestingly similar.


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