With the coverage of the swine flu, I’ve been thinking about an
arcane fact I was told once about the epidemic of 1918.
A friend I went to college with went on to study demography in
graduate school. At that time (early 1970’s), the way you got a PhD in
demography was to study the “demographic transition” (when people
get prosperous enough to consider children an expense instead of
an asset) somewhere. We lived in Rhode Island, so he studied it
in Rhode Island.
This meant that he looked at essentially all the death
certificates issued in the first few decades of the
twentieth century. And one of the things he and other
demographers noticed about the spike in deaths from Spanish
Influenza in 1918 was that it
led to a decline in deaths from tuberculosis over the next decade
So the theory at that point was that the people who died from
the flu tended to be people who already had low-grade
So if the current flu coming out of Mexico is anything like the
1918 flu, and if the theory based on death
certificates in the twentieth century has any validity, then we
might be in better shape than some people are worried about. I’d
be very surprised if the level of low-grade tuberculosis, at least in developed countries, isn’t a
lot lower now than in 1918.
course, further research may well have invalidated the theory
about the 1918 deaths, and there may be very little resemblance
between the viruses in 2009 and the ones in 1918.