Spanish Flu of 1918: how bad was it?

With all the scare talk about Coughing Pig Death, plenty of people are calling up the horrors of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. And to be sure, the 1918 flu was a tragic, awful calamity. But just how bad was it, statistically speaking?

It's estimated that about 28 per cent of Canadians and Americans contracted the Spanish flu. Worldwide, an estimated 2.5 per cent of the sick died of complications, which made the pandemic one of the most lethal flu outbreaks in recorded history. Certainly it was one that imprinted itself upon human consciousness for several generations.

But there's another way to look at those statistics. You might observe, for example, that they mean that even during the worst ravages of the 1918 flu, 97.5 per cent of those infected survived and recovered. Or that 72 per cent of the population — even in the absence of the sophisticated public health planning and infrastructure that Canada and the U.S. have since built — was not infected during the pandemic.

So, even if we had a repeat of the 1918 flu, the chances were seven out of 10 that you wouldn't catch it and if you did, the odds were better than nine out of 10 that you'd survive.

That was during the worst pandemic of the modern era and one which occurred in the days before the instantaneous communications of radio, television and the Web enabled quick public health responses.

Too much knowledge can exaggerate the danger of a pandemic

(via William Gibson)