Dr. Robert Bramson, a retired physician from the Children’s Hospital in Boston and Massachusetts General Hospital, polled the small audience gathered at the Oysterponds Historical Society Saturday afternoon: What was the deadliest disease outbreak in history?
The Black Death in Europe that killed as much as a third of the population? Nope.
Cholera in colonial India? Keep guessing.
The malaria epidemics in Africa and Southeast Asia? Not even close.
With 50 million confirmed deaths, and modern estimates of casualties reaching even higher numbers, the title of deadliest disease has to go to the influenza pandemic of 1918, Dr. Bramson said during a lecture on the deadly outbreak.
The crippling disease infected nearly a third of the world’s population and even usually “healthy” individuals between 18 and 45 years old succumbed to the illness.
The virus rampaged over the North Fork, spread by ferry workers and railroad passengers anxious to escape the urban sprawl. Half of the patients suffering from influenza in Southold Town died, Dr. Bramson said.
Despite years of research, scientists are still not certain where the flu came from; it appears the virus may have mutated from an influenza that swept through the world decades earlier. A form of the disease may have also hit again in the late-1950s.
But where the virus went, and whether we’d be able to combat the pandemic if it hit again, remain mysteries. Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t good, he said.
“Could we stop it? Probably not,” Dr. Bramson said, citing that no viral antibiotics currently exist, global spread is easier than ever thanks to airplanes and increased connectivity, and that medical facilities would likely become overwhelmed in the event of a viral disaster.
The best bet of preventing another pandemis is immunization, he said. The mix of inert strains is designed to build up a body’s defenses should they encounter a deadly virus.
“Basically what I’m saying is, ‘get the flu shot,’ ” Dr. Bramson said.