published : 2023-10-13

Skeletons from 1918 flu pandemic reveal surprising clues about those most likely to die

New research challenges long-held belief that young, healthy people were most at risk

An image of a vintage photograph depicting a group of people wearing masks during the 1918 flu pandemic, taken with a Canon EOS R.

The deadliest flu pandemic in history, the 1918 flu — also known as the Spanish flu — claimed the lives of an estimated 50 million people, equivalent to one-fifth of the world’s population.

Contrary to popular belief, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that frail or unhealthy individuals were more vulnerable to the virus.

Researchers from McMaster University in Canada and the University of Colorado Boulder examined the skeletal remains of 369 individuals who lived during the 1918 flu pandemic.

The sample was divided into two groups: one group who died before the pandemic and another group who died during the pandemic.

By analyzing the skeletal remains for lesions indicating stress or inflammation caused by trauma, infection, or malnutrition, the researchers were able to determine which individuals were more likely to be frail and succumb to the virus.

A close-up macro shot of skeletal remains, showcasing the intricate details of bone structures, taken with a Nikon D850.

Lead study author Amanda Wissler emphasized the impact of cultural, social, and biological factors on the likelihood of death during a pandemic.

This observation resonates with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., where individuals facing health disparities experienced higher rates of illness and mortality.

The findings of this study suggest that certain populations are more susceptible to severe outcomes during pandemics.

However, it is important to note that the study did not have data on individuals who survived the 1918 flu but were infected.

Additionally, the study only represents a specific time and place, and further research is needed to generalize the findings to other locations.

A dramatic photograph of a person holding a sign that reads 'Healthcare Disparities', symbolizing the impact of social factors on pandemic vulnerability, taken with a Sony A7 III.

Infectious disease physician MarkAlain Déry comments on the study, acknowledging that it reinforces the understanding that vulnerable communities and individuals in lower socioeconomic statuses are more likely to experience frailty and mortality during pandemics.

While the study sheds light on historical pandemics and provides insights into their impact on human populations, it also highlights the importance of studying the past to inform our understanding of present-day diseases.

Protecting against current strains of influenza remains crucial, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months and older receive an annual flu vaccination.

As we continue to navigate the challenges of infectious diseases, learning from the past will be instrumental in shaping future public health strategies.