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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Boston Globe Health and Science staff:
Karen Weintraub, Deputy Health and Science Editor, and Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor.
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Monday, April 2, 2007
Public health measures slowed 1918 flu pandemic, study finds
Quickly closing schools, theaters and churches reduced deaths early in the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, researchers report in today's online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Measures taken by different American cities were compared to see whether they were associated with reduced transmission of the flu virus, which is spread by coughing or sneezing. The first US cases of flu were reported in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1918, but city officials still allowed a a parade on Sept. 28 and public gatherings were not banned until Oct. 3, when cases were overwhelming the health system.
In St. Louis, public health authorities closed schools, theaters and churches two days after their first cases on Oct. 5, and that city experienced a smaller epidemic, with half the number of deaths at its peak.
"Looking back at the comparison between cities in 1918, there were enormous variations in the severity of the pandemic in different cities and those variations seem to be closely tied to the aggressiveness and promptness with which different cities put in place a set of interventions to try to block transmission," co-author Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview.
Once those interventions were relaxed, the death rates among different cites became the same. Temporary measures were still valuable, Lipsitch said, because they reduced the stress on society and on the healthcare system by buying time at the peak of the epidemic.
"This gives support to the notion, which is now federal policy, that when facing the next pandemic communities should try as early as possible to implement a set of measures similar to this if the pandemic is severe," Lipsitch said.