In this case, old news can become new “news” when we realize that the old news missed the mark the first time. For decades, the general belief held by medicine and history was that the 1918 flu epidemic affected healthy individuals at the same rate as those with pre-existing illness. At the time, medical providers noted a rapid rate of decline in everyone so they took their initial perspective and ran with it. Now we have a clearer picture from a retrospective analysis recently released. In this case, the old news did not get it right the first time. Hopefully, the new “news” can correct this error and avoid any misapplication to current medical care.
Fifty million people died across the world with the 1918 epidemic. A number of factors in both the virus pathogenicity itself and the social factors like mass travel from World War I combined to devastate whole swathes of the population. Medicine of the time was less advanced, so when these gravely ill patients came for care, the best that could be done was giving them supportive care and hoping for recovery. That particular strain of the flu spread faster than usual and caused more severe symptoms, although other studies also emphasize that secondary bacterial infections played a major role in morbidity and mortality statistics.
The rapid rate of decline and subsequent death mistakenly lead the medical world to believe that well and unwell were similarly susceptible to these bad outcomes. Prior attempts to understand risk factors for the 1918 flu looked at insurance records, census data, and other statistics. In this most recent study, however, researchers examined skeletal remains of 369 people who died either before the 1918 pandemic or during it. The skeletal remains provided insight into the state of health for these individuals and showed that those with less healthy bones demonstrated higher death rates in the pandemic.
Although these findings may change old beliefs and make for interesting news, ultimately this reminds us that our bodies’ responses to acute attacks like a viral pandemic depend a lot on our general state of wellness prior to the viral attack. The terrain theory of illness is relevant here: we can decrease the impact of acute illnesses by tending the garden of our bodies during non-stressed times. If we continually stress our bodies with inflammatory foods and products while depriving our bodies of needed nutrients, we will not only be more likely to develop not only chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease but will also be more likely to fall prey to acute viruses, pandemic or not. Living healthier, more abundant lives must be daily intentional effort so that we are ready when the next virus or bacteria knocks on our bodies’ doors.
Article in Focus:
Amanda Wissler, Sharon N. DeWitte. Frailty and survival in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2023; 120 (42) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2304545120
Thanks to Science Daily:
McMaster University. “Evidence from the remains of 1918 flu pandemic victims contradicts long-held belief that healthy young adults were particularly vulnerable.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 October 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/10/231009191721.htm>. Accessed October 11, 2023.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.