Thanks to social distancing and other preventive measures implemented to reduce COVID-19 transmission, recent flu seasons have been much less active than those of previous years. But, influenza has been responsible for global pandemics in the past.

While healthcare providers can now offer the flu vaccine to their patients, it was only fairly recently that this preemptive measure became widely recommended for most populations. Here’s a closer look into how the influenza virus and its vaccine have changed throughout history.

Origins of the Flu

The first reports of influenza-like viruses can be traced back at least 1,500 years, with records from Hippocrates describing how the illness spread throughout Northern Greece. Until 1892, when viruses were first discovered, the cause for these early flus remained largely unknown. One flu epidemic affecting Italy in the 1300s was referred to as “the influenza di freddo,” or “cold influence,” because they believed the climate was to blame.

Modern Flu Epidemics

Perhaps the best-known flu epidemic is the Spanish flu, which spread across the world throughout 1918 and 1919. The disease killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people globally and affected a third of the world’s population. It traveled from Asia to Europe and Africa, and then eventually reached military personnel in the U.S. More World War I soldiers died from this flu than from battles during the war itself. The mortality rate of healthy people in the 20-40 age range was particularly unique to this outbreak.

Other flu pandemics occurred throughout the 1900s, including the 1957 H2N2 Asian flu and the 1968 H3N2 flu, which killed over a million people. In 2009, an H1N1 virus — known as swine flu — also spread across North America and the rest of the world. Its impact was fairly mild compared to others, taking only 203,000 lives.

The Emergence of the Flu Vaccine

Experts first isolated the influenza virus in 1933, prompting the pursuit of a vaccine. Due to the flu-related deaths of so many soldiers during World War I, the military took interest in the vaccine and engaged soldiers in field tests for early versions throughout World War II. It was around the same time that scientists discovered influenza type B, calling for a bivalent vaccine which would protect against this strain, along with the H1N1 variety. By 1945, the flu vaccine was licensed for use in civilians.

After further study, scientists discovered that flu viruses mutated, resulting in new proteins that affect humans. By the 1970s, the World Health Organization began issuing yearly recommendations to renew the flu vaccine, based on strains that were currently circulating.

Today, we see the most flu activity between December and February. Ahead of this window every year, physicians help prevent future flu pandemics by encouraging their patients to get annually vaccinated. With options available for children as young as six months, to people over the age of 65, and everyone in between, it’s now easier than ever for doctors to help their patients avoid the flu and its potentially deadly side effects.

If you have patients presenting flu symptoms, rapid testing helps them get the quick treatment they need. Our comprehensive respiratory pathogen profile tests for 21 different pathogens associated with respiratory infections, including COVID-19 and five flu strains. Browse through our chronic care management options or contact us for more information by calling (678) 433-0607.

Learn more about LifeBrite

Atlanta-based LifeBrite, led by CEO Christian Fletcher, operates LifeBrite Community Hospital of Early, LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes, and Lifebrite Laboratories.