The 20th century served up plenty of nightmares, most of them man-made. But one of the worst was a perverse act of nature, and a repeat performance would terrorize the world more thoroughly than Saddam Hussein could ever hope to.
They called it the Spanish influenza. History records few epidemics more swift or deadly; in 1918-1919 it is estimated to have killed at least 20 million worldwide, though the real toll may have been five times that. Public health officials have worked in its shadow ever since, remaining vigilant in order to prevent a recurrence.
Memories of the Spanish flu are one reason a certain chill must have gone down doctors’ spines when news began to emerge earlier this month about a respiratory disease that seems to have originated in China. The disease results in pneumonia and, in at least 10 cases so far, was fatal. It was quickly given a name: severe acute respiratory syndrome — SARS.
The World Health Organization was so alarmed it issued an unusual global alert last weekend.
Was this the beginning of a new, long-dreaded pandemic, an echo of the terrible plague that stalked humanity as the Great War drew to its dismal close?
Right now, the answer appears to be no, even though the list of countries where it has appeared was growing rapidly early this week.
For one thing, doctors the pace of fatalities appears to have slowed considerably. For another, the disease does not seem to spread as easily as a normal flu; many of those infected have been health-care workers who had close and prolonged contact with earlier victims.
Even if SARS does become a serious threat, we have advantages unavailable in 1918. The world health community is far better organized and it already is galvanized against this outbreak. Doctors are armed with instant, global communications and the ability to quickly produce new vaccines — a far cry from the gauze masks and wishful thinking with which people tried to ward off the 1918 flu. By late in the week investigators said they were making progress on pinpointing the organism that causes the disease.
So maybe this thing will pass, as have several other flu scares in the last eight decades.
But even if it does fade, it stands as a chilling reminder of humanity’s long struggle with a tiny, ruthless killer.