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The History of Pandemic Viruses

Greece, Il Pireo, Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum), Greek Civilization, 5th Century B.C., Classical Age (450-323 B.C.), Aegean Civilizations

Flu and Corona Virus

The first known reference to the flu comes from ancient documents written by Hippocrates as early as 412 BC.  Known as the “father of medicine”, he described flu-like symptoms being experienced in northern Greece.  412 BC epidemic of an unknown disease, often identified as influenza was reported in Northern Greece by Hippocrates and in Rome by Livy. Both described the epidemic continuing for roughly a year.

The disease outbreak caused a food shortage in the Roman Republic, and a famine was only prevented with food relief from Sicily and Etruria, and via trade missions to the “peoples round about who dwelt on the Tuscan sea or by the Tiber.

The flu, or influenza, is a highly contagious viral infection that mainly affects the respiratory system. It’s usually a seasonal illness, with yearly outbreaks killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Though rare, completely new versions of the virus may infect people and spread quickly, resulting in pandemics (an infection that spreads throughout the world) with death tolls in the millions. Symptoms of the flu include sudden onset fever, coughing, sneezing, a runny nose, and severe malaise, though it can also include vomiting, diarrhea and nausea. Influenza has plagued humankind for centuries and, given its highly variable nature, may continue to do so for centuries to come.

The flu can also sometimes cause vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, (particularly in young children), but the flu is primarily a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.

Symptoms develop 1 to 4 days after contracting the virus. Most people recover within 2 weeks without medical treatment, but the flu can cause serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus and ear infections.

During recent years in the United States, between 12,000 and 56,000 people have died annually from the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are both infectious respiratory illnesses. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.

Similarities: COVID-19 and the Flu

Symptoms

  • Both cause fever, cough, body aches, fatigue; sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Can be mild or severe, even fatal in rare cases.
  • Can result in pneumonia.

Transmission

  • Both can be spread from person to person through droplets in the air from an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking.
  • A possible difference: COVID-19 might be spread through the airborne route (see details below under Differences).
  • Flu can be spread by an infected person for several days before their symptoms appear, and COVID-19 is believed to be spread in the same manner, but we don’t yet know for sure.

Treatment

  • Neither virus is treatable with antibiotics, which only work on bacterial infections.
  • Both may be treated by addressing symptoms, such as reducing fever. Severe cases may require hospitalization and support such as mechanical ventilation.

Prevention

Both may be prevented by frequent, thorough hand washing, coughing into the crook of your elbow, staying home when sick and limiting contact with people who are infected.

Coronavirus at a Glance

Differences: COVID-19 and the Flu

Cause

COVID-19: Caused by one virus, the novel 2019 coronavirus, now called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.

Flu: Caused by any of several different types and strains of influenza viruses.

Transmission

While both the flu and COVID-19 may be transmitted in similar ways (see the Similarities section above), there is also a possible difference: COVID-19 might be spread through the airborne route, meaning that tiny droplets remaining in the air could cause disease in others even after the ill person is no longer near.

Antiviral Medications

COVID-19: Antiviral medications are currently being tested to see if they can address symptoms.

Flu: Antiviral medications can address symptoms and sometimes shorten the duration of the illness.

Vaccine

COVID-19: No vaccine is available at this time, though it is in progress.

Flu: A vaccine is available and effective to prevent some of the most dangerous types or to reduce the severity of the flu.

Infections

COVID-19: Approximately 247,400 cases worldwide; 14,250 cases in the U.S. as of Mar. 20, 2020.*

Flu: Estimated 1 billion cases worldwide; 9.3 million to 45 million cases in the U.S. per year.

Deaths

COVID-19: Approximately 10,067 deaths reported worldwide; 205 deaths in the U.S., as of Mar. 20, 2020.*

Flu: 291,000 to 646,000 deaths worldwide; 12,000 to 61,000 deaths in the U.S. per year.

The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. Since this disease is caused by a new virus, people do not have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away. Doctors and scientists are working on estimating the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be higher than that of most strains of the flu.

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