Secret no.28 Surviving the 1918 flu epidemic

3031443773_316088e415_oNoeleen Hughes, who died recently in New Zealand at the age of 102, survived the worst pandemic in human history.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic of 1918-19 was a genuine disaster, infecting one in every five people in the world and killing between 20 and 40 million of them. It was more virulent than the plague and, unusually, hit hardest at healthy young adults. It struck a world still recovering from conflict, killing ten times as many Americans as had died in the first world war and depressing life expectancy for a decade.

Noeleen caught the virus but recovered and her son-in-law believes that this was the reason she had such a long and fruitful life – she raised three daughters, taught for over two decades and lived on her family farm.

So is it possible that he’s right?

Plausibility rating: 3 out of 10. We do know now that surviving the ‘flu would have helped Noeleen in one way: it gave lifelong immunity against a recurrence of the virus. Over 90 years after the pandemic, a study found that antibodies extracted from its survivors still protected mice exposed to virus for the first time.

However there’s no reason to believe that it would have offered any greater protection against other illnesses and ageing. And we would know if it did because, despite the huge death toll, surviving the virus was still the norm. Though it was far more virulent than other strains of the flu, the virus still ‘only’ killed 2.5 percent of those infected. And there’s nothing to suggest that the hundreds of millions who survived had extended lives (though it means that Noeleen was in some exalted company – other survivors included Walt Disney, David Lloyd Georgee, Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Haile Selasse I and the artists Edward Munch and Georgia O’Keeffe).

So Noeleen’s relatively brief but surely traumatic experience in her teens is very unlikely to have been the reason to her long life.

Son-in-law Philip does however have other possible candidates. ‘Hard work‘ we’ve already covered and surely sometime soon we’ll consider his other explanation, ‘having no vices’.

photo credit: From 1918 Influenza Outbreak via photopin (license)


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