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5 worst influenza pandemics

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Flu is something we deal with every year. In the U.S., that unfortunate time is usually between October and May. Thanks to vaccines and resistances, influenza generally means an agonizing week or so to anyone unlucky enough to catch it. The virus becomes particularly deadly when a new strain emerges for which there is no established resistance. Outbreaks of new strains can quickly turn from an epidemic (spreading beyond a local population) to a pandemic (reaching worldwide proportions).

The five worst influenza pandemics all occurred within the last 100 years. Some experts estimate influenza has killed more people in that time than the Black Death (bubonic plague), which took 200 years to run its course.

Continue on to read about the five worst flu pandemics.

2009 flu pandemicThe 2009 Flu Pandemic

2009 – 2010

18,000 to 300,000 deaths

Origin of the disease, also known as Swine Flu, is not known, but most likely circulated amongst humans for months before being recognized as a novel strain. Uncharacteristic of most flu strains, this disease did not disproportionately infect adults over the age of 60. Fatalities confirmed by laboratory testing number around 18,000. Experts agree unconfirmed or unreported deaths could be as high as 300,000, with the World Health Organization saying the number could be even higher.

Photo caption: 

A crowd of people wait in line outside a clinic set up for Swine Flu inoculations, Nov. 2, 2009, in Worcester, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Hong Kong fluThe Hong Kong Flu

1968 – 1969

1 million deaths

The Hong Kong Flu had a lower death rate than previous pandemics. It’s thought that a resistance built up from the previous pandemic, availability of antibiotics and limited exposure during the winter holidays helped slow the spread and keep the mortality rate low.

Photo caption: 

Experts say this pandemic could have been much worse had it not been for increased access to antibiotics and resistance to the flu virus. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Asian fluThe Asian Flu

1957 – 1958

More than 2 million deaths

The Asian Flu broke out in China in early 1957, but a vaccine was not available until August. The disease hit in two waves: the first was very deadly to school children, young adults and pregnant women; the elderly were particularly susceptible to the second wave, which hit in early 1958. In all, more than 2 million people died, 70,000 in the U.S.

Photo caption: 

A doctor administers the first Asian flu vaccine shot in New City to a nurse at Montefiore Hospital Aug. 16, 1957. (AP Photo, File)

Russian fluThe Asiatic (Russian) Flu

1889 – 1890

1 million deaths

The Russian Flu started in Russia in 1889 and spread through Europe before arriving in the U.S. December of that year. The virus hit South America two months later and went on to India and Australia. The strain had a high mortality rate killing roughly 1 million people, 250,000 in Western Europe alone.

Photo caption: 

A Moscow woman dries herself after taking a dip in ice-cold water in the Moscow river in 2001. Many Russians consider jumping in ice-cold water for short dips of not more than a minute a healthy activity that prevents colds and flu during the winter. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Great InfluenzaThe Great Influenza

1918 – 1920

20 – 50 million deaths

The Spanish Flu, as it’s more commonly known as, killed roughly 3 percent of the world’s population at the time and some 27 percent of the world was infected. The virus killed by sending the body’s immune system into overdrive, which led to a higher number of deaths in young adults than children and older adults. The first case was registered in the United States, but the name is from the disease’s perceived severity in Spain.

Photo caption: 

Gravestones of victims of the 1918 flu pandemic in Hope Cemetery in Barre, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)