A Somber Centennial - U.S. Health Diplomacy Aims to Prevent Repeat of Catastrophic Flu Pandemics

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Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston.
Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston. (Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

A Somber Centennial - U.S. Health Diplomacy Aims to Prevent Repeat of Catastrophic Flu Pandemics

This year seems on track as a particularly difficult flu season in the United States, with outbreaks across the country. The past reminds us that we have come far in the fight against the influenza virus, but vigilant we must remain.

Towards the end of World War I, the U.S. Army recruits training in Kansas, suddenly became dangerously ill.  The scope of the outbreak was not fully understood at the time, however the U.S. Army recruits were among the first victims of a global influenza pandemic. This pandemic proved to be far more deadly than the horrors of war – killing up to 100 million people, more than five times the number of deaths from combat casualties during the entire war.

The flu had been around for a millennia, so how did it spread so quickly? A critical factor in the 1918 influenza pandemic was the unprecedented, large-scale movement of people throughout the continents by air; this allowed a virus to cross oceans in a matter of days to populations that had never before been exposed to such flu strains.  Since then, intercontinental and international travel has expanded drastically with more than 3 billion passengers traveling in just one year on commercial airlines. 

One may ask, how do we prevent a new flu pandemic, like the one that ravaged our world 100 years ago? One way the State Department is working with its colleagues from the Department of Health and Human Services, other government agencies, and partners around the world to help prevent the next flu pandemic is by fostering a global approach to pandemic influenza preparedness and response.  This requires cooperation among nations, as well as collaboration with the private sector and academia, and timely sharing of science data to develop stronger vaccines, better ways to diagnose the flu, and new treatments that work. 

The Department also helps improve international capacity to prevent, detect, and respondto infectious disease outbreaks.  The State Department oversees the implementation of programs and policies that advance the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) to help address gaps in health security capacity in foreign countries.  The United States also provides technical assistance to train international health professionals in specific laboratory testing and to prevent the transmission of a variety of pathogens including the influenza virus.

Additionally, the Department manages science and technology, and international health agreements, which foster collaboration between the United States and our world partners in support of our health, economic, and security priorities.

One hundred years have passed since the catastrophic flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and thanks to technological advances and international cooperation, we are able to respond to the influenza threats more efficiently.  However, reports of this year’s seasonal flu serve as a heartbreaking reminder of the virus’ enduring, destructive capabilities.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that already 119 children have died from the flu this season.  Sadly, the CDC estimates that the United States will suffer approximately 56,000 deaths by the season’s end.

As we mark the centennial of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, the State Department is proud to partner with other U.S. government agencies in the effort to ensure that the United States continues to plays a vital role in the global effort to keep catastrophic influenza pandemics relegated to the pages of history.

About the Author: Judith G. Garber serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.

For More Information:

  • Learn more about Seaonal Flu Prevention here.