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The Spanish flu (1918-20): The global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history

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1918 Spanish flu killed 100 million people… With less than 4500 until now the Coronavirus looks like a joke…


In the last 150 years the world has seen an unprecedented improvement in health. The visualization shows that in many countries life expectancy, which measures the average age of death, doubled from around 40 years or less to more than 80 years. This was not just an achievement across these countries; life expectancy has doubled in all regions of the world.

What also stands out is how abrupt and damning negative health events can be. Most striking is the large, sudden decline of life expectancy in 1918, caused by an unusually deadly influenza pandemic that became known as the ‘Spanish flu’.

To make sense of the fact life expectancy declined so abruptly, one has to understand what it measures. Period life expectancy, which is the precise name for this measure, only looks at the mortality pattern in one particular year and then captures this snapshot of population health as the average age of death of a hypothetical cohort of people for which that year’s mortality pattern would remain constant throughout their entire lifetimes. Period life expectancy is a measure of the population’s health in one year.



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