What can flu history teach us about this year’s outbreak?

A Q&A with U-M medical historian Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D.

New York policeman with flu mask - 1918

A New York City policeman wears a mask to avoid catching the 1918 flu.

The flu is back in force this year — especially a strain that attacks younger, healthier people and can cause serious, even life-threatening, illness.

Fortunately, this year’s vaccine can protect against it — unlike in 2009, when the same strain of the virus arrived after the vaccine was made.

And it’s a far better situation than back in 1918, when a slightly different strain killed 650,000 Americans.

Those two historic outbreaks can teach us a lot, says University of Michigan Medical historian and pediatrician Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D. His team has studied flu history for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Q: What does studying past flu outbreaks teach us about flu? Isn’t this a virus we know a lot about already?
A: What’s really interesting is that as much as we know, we still don’t know that much about flu. We know more than we did in 1918 – but we still don’t have a lot of good information. Continue reading