The ghost of pandemics past: revisiting two centuries of influenza in Sweden

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Abstract

Previous influenza pandemics are usually invoked in pandemic preparedness planning without a thorough analysis of the events surrounding them, what has been called the ‘configuration’ of epidemics. Historic pandemics are instead used to contrast them to the novelty of the coming imagined plague or as fear of a ghost-like repetition of the past. This view of pandemics is guided by a biomedical framework that is ahistorical and reductionist. The meaning of ‘pandemic’ influenza is in fact highly ambiguous in its partitioning of pandemic and seasonal influenza. The past 200 years of influenza epidemics in Sweden are examined with a special focus on key social structures—households, schools, transportations and the military. These are shown to have influenced the progression of influenza pandemics. Prevailing beliefs around influenza pandemics have also profoundly influenced intervention strategies. Measuring long-term trends in pandemic severity is problematic because pandemics are non-linear events where the conditions surrounding them constantly change. However, in a linearised view, the Spanish flu can be seen to represent a historical turning point and the H1N1 2009 pandemic not as an outlier, but following a 100-year trend of decreasing severity. Integrating seasonal and pandemic influenza, and adopting an ecosocial stance can deepen our understanding and bring the ghost-like pandemic past to life.

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