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Why Was the 1918 Influenza So Deadly?

An Intimate Debate Case


Annie Prud’homme-Genereux
Continuing Studies and Executive Education
Capilano University
Carmen A. Petrick
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada


In this intimate debate, students examine the causes of the devastation wrought by the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. Students consider whether the 1918 flu was exceptionally deadly because of its biology, or whether prevalent geopolitical-socioeconomic conditions led to the negative health outcomes. Students assess the contribution of each factor, consider how they might have interacted, and apply their knowledge to evaluate the risks of current flu outbreaks. The case was developed for a sophomore undergraduate course on infectious disease; it may be of use in a general biology course if sufficient background in viral biology is provided by the instructor.


  • Weigh the evidence that the devastation wrought by the 1918 influenza was due to the virus's biology and/or geopolitical-socioeconomic conditions (GPSEC) prevalent at the time.
  • Reach a complex understanding of why the 1918 flu was so devastating, synthesizing information from both a simple virulence model as well as a simple GPSEC model, and which considers the interaction of these two factors in magnifying one another's effects.
  • Assimilate information quickly and work with a colleague to effectively teach peers.
  • Apply information learned about a past pandemic condition to predict future pandemic outcomes.


Influenza; flu; Spanish flu; infectious disease; pandemic; virus; viral infection; vaccine; vaccination; immune evasion; immunity; immunology; virology; WWI; World War I; First World War

Topical Areas

History of science, Regulatory issues, Scientific argumentation, Social issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Intimate Debate, Discussion



Subject Headings

Microbiology  |   Molecular Biology  |   Biology (General)  |   Epidemiology  |   Medicine (General)  |   Public Health  |   Sociology  |  

Date Posted


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