Boston, MA -- In recent years, health professionals and the general public alike have been acutely aware of the potential ravages that could result from a flu pandemic. Although many people might still recall the pandemics of 1968 and 1957, it is the infamous 1918-1920 pandemic--and the possibility of a recurrence on that scale--that causes the most trepidation.
Strangely, researchers still don't know exactly how many people died from this particular strain of the flu virus in that pandemic, and they know even less about how mortality rates varied in different parts of the world. In fact, most historic information is based on eyewitness accounts and not on statistical analysis. Now, a team of researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of Queensland in Australia have re-analyzed data from 27 countries around the world to estimate both the global mortality patterns of the 1918 pandemic and, based on 2004 population data, how a similar pandemic would affect the world today.
These findings, to be published in the December 23, 2006 issue of The Lancet, show that mortality rates for the 1918-1920 pandemic were disproportionately high in communities where per capita income was lowest. If the same pandemic were to occur today, approximately 96 percent of deaths would occur in developing countries.
"This is the first time there has been this sort of systematic analysis based on vital statistics, such as death registration data, from the 1918-1920 period," said lead author Christopher Murray, Professor of Population Policy at HSPH and Director of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. "These findings are particularly alarming when you consider that all the policy protection is aimed at the high income world. Very few strategies are being thought through that are primarily targeting poor countries."
For many decades, published epidemiological literature assumed that mortality rates from the 19
Contact: Robin Herman
Harvard School of Public Health