What would it look like if the devastating Spanish flu crisis of 1918 hit today? That was the question that public health experts and thought leaders came together to address at this week’s “The Next Pandemic” symposium, organized in collaboration with Smithsonian Media, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
On the one hand, today’s public health landscape looks nothing like 1918—thanks in part to the continued reverberations of that fateful year. The waves of influenza that claimed the lives of anywhere between 50 and 100 million people ushered in a new era of public health and epidemiology. Today we have a seasonal flu vaccine, as well as the capacity to develop new vaccines within six months of identifying novel strains. We have international disease reporting and surveillance networks to ensure that a disaster on that scale never happens again.
On the other hand, all these tools could prove useless depending on what we find ourselves facing. Even a familiar culprit like influenza—which morphs every year and still largely manages to outsmart our vaccines—could easily overwhelm the world’s current healthcare systems and resources. Nor is the pandemic threat limited to immediate dangers to public health. A crisis of that magnitude would test our infrastructure and community response, and threaten countries’ economic and political security.