Back to the Future: Lessons Learned From the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2018 Oct 8;8:343. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2018.00343. eCollection 2018.


2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed ~50 million people worldwide. The severity of this pandemic resulted from a complex interplay between viral, host, and societal factors. Here, we review the viral, genetic and immune factors that contributed to the severity of the 1918 pandemic and discuss the implications for modern pandemic preparedness. We address unresolved questions of why the 1918 influenza H1N1 virus was more virulent than other influenza pandemics and why some people survived the 1918 pandemic and others succumbed to the infection. While current studies suggest that viral factors such as haemagglutinin and polymerase gene segments most likely contributed to a potent, dysregulated pro-inflammatory cytokine storm in victims of the pandemic, a shift in case-fatality for the 1918 pandemic toward young adults was most likely associated with the host's immune status. Lack of pre-existing virus-specific and/or cross-reactive antibodies and cellular immunity in children and young adults likely contributed to the high attack rate and rapid spread of the 1918 H1N1 virus. In contrast, lower mortality rate in in the older (>30 years) adult population points toward the beneficial effects of pre-existing cross-reactive immunity. In addition to the role of humoral and cellular immunity, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that individual genetic differences, especially involving single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), contribute to differences in the severity of influenza virus infections. Co-infections with bacterial pathogens, and possibly measles and malaria, co-morbidities, malnutrition or obesity are also known to affect the severity of influenza disease, and likely influenced 1918 H1N1 disease severity and outcomes. Additionally, we also discuss the new challenges, such as changing population demographics, antibiotic resistance and climate change, which we will face in the context of any future influenza virus pandemic. In the last decade there has been a dramatic increase in the number of severe influenza virus strains entering the human population from animal reservoirs (including highly pathogenic H7N9 and H5N1 viruses). An understanding of past influenza virus pandemics and the lessons that we have learnt from them has therefore never been more pertinent.

Keywords: 1918; external factors; host factors; influenza; pandemic; prevention; societal factors; viral factors.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Coinfection / epidemiology
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Global Health
  • History, 20th Century
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions*
  • Humans
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype / genetics
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype / immunology*
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype / pathogenicity*
  • Influenza Pandemic, 1918-1919*
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology*
  • Influenza, Human / mortality
  • Influenza, Human / pathology
  • Influenza, Human / virology