Post-epidemic Medical Advances

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An article on influenza in “Military Preventive Medicine,” 1930. Courtesy of the University of California via HathiTrust.

During the early twentieth century, medical knowledge of disease transmission improved as the pandemic accelerated public understanding of the importance of cleanliness in disease prevention. A newly developed vaccine for typhoid had stopped what was a primary cause of death among servicemen in past conflicts, and World War I inspired similar advances in influenza deterrence.

Almost as soon as the first outbreak began, scientists and physicians strived to pinpoint the origin of "Spanish Flu" in order to stop transmission. The resulting medical interventions happened so rapidly that by the war's end (less than a year after the pandemic's peak), losses from disease had already decreased due to better prevention and higher sanitation standards, as well as therapeutic and surgical developments. The post-war period brought continuing research and development, culminating in the discovery of an effective flu vaccine in 1945. Unfortunately, even these significant advances couldn't keep the flu completely at bay. A second flu pandemic swept the US in 1957-1958, taking another 70,000 lives, followed by another in 1968-1969, both of which led to a new, more effective flu vaccine for children in 1985. Recent years have brought further advances in influenza research, including better vaccines. All of these medical breakthroughs were set in motion by the pandemic of 1918.