Coronavirus And The Sun: A Lesson From The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Terrified, people from all around the world are waiting for news of the outbreak of coronavirus, that keeps taking its death toll.

The first case of Covid-19 was identified over three months ago, and so far, it has killed thousands of people, forcing the lockdown of numerous countries.

Coronavirus is a worldwide subject of conversation now, and people keep browsing for information that might help them prevent its spread.

President Donald Trump assured the public that the coronavirus will “go away in April” as warmer temperatures will arrive. Some health experts suspected his prediction, claiming that we cannot be sure the virus will cease infecting people in the summer, nor that it will disappear.

There is no evidence that sun exposure can kill the coronavirus, but ample evidence indicates that viruses, including human coronaviruses, don’t like heat.

Dr. Richard Hobday, an independent researcher in the fields of infection control, public health, and building design, also believes that sunlight might be of help. His claims are based on the experience of the greatest pandemic in recorded history, that affected about one-third of the world’s population.

The acute respiratory tract infection was known as the Spanish flu, as it was first reported in Spanish newspapers. The medical expert explains why viruses are less active and less likely to spread during the summer. He maintains that sunlight, fresh air, and improvised face masks might be of great help, just like they were a century ago.

At that time, as influenza was spreading around the Globe, governments enforced isolation, quarantine, and discouraged public gatherings as well. Yet, experience showed that patients nursed outdoors recovered better than those treated indoors.

He writes that deaths among patients and infections among medical staff were prevented with a combination of fresh air and sunlight, adding that it is scientifically proven.

He explains that outdoor air acts as a natural disinfectant, that can kill the flu and other harmful germs, while sunlight is germicidal and kills the flu virus.

The worst places during the pandemic were military barracks and troop-ships, so soldiers and sailors were at an increased risk of influenza and other infections that followed it. Also, the repatriation of troops was probably the main reason for the widespread of the flu.

Just like in the case of Covid-19, most of the patients died from pneumonia and other complications.

In an emergency hospital in the city of Boston, the hospital’s medical officer realized that the most seriously ill sailors had been in badly-ventilated spaces, so he decided to put them in tents outside. When the weather was good, they were exposed to the sun, outside of the tents.

At the time, open-air therapy was widely used on casualties from the Western Front, as well as tuberculosis patients. The open-air regime was popular until it was replaced with antibiotics in the 1950s. According to one report, this therapy reduced death from 40% to 14% at the hospital in Boston.

First of all, Hobday explains, when outdoors, patients are less prone to germs present in hospital wards, as the clean air created a largely sterile environment.

In the 1960s, the Ministry of Defense scientists proved that fresh air is a natural disinfectant. They found that something in it, named the Open Air Factor, kills airborne bacteria and the flu more efficiently than indoor air.

They also discovered that these disinfecting powers can be preserved indoors as well, in case the room is properly ventilated.

Yet, by the time they discovered it, open-air treatment was replaced with antibiotics, so fresh air was not involved in infection control and hospital design anymore.

Hobday goes on to say:

“Putting infected patients out in the sun may have helped because it inactivates the influenza virus. It also kills bacteria that cause lung and other infections in hospitals.

During the First World War, military surgeons routinely used sunlight to heal infected wounds. They knew it was a disinfectant. What they didn’t know is that one advantage of placing patients outside in the sun is they can synthesize vitamin D in their skin if sunlight is strong enough.

This was not discovered until the 1920s. Low vitamin D levels are now linked to respiratory infections and may increase susceptibility to influenza.

Also, our body’s biological rhythms appear to influence how we resist infections. New research suggests they can alter our inflammatory response to the flu virus. As with vitamin D, at the time of the 1918 pandemic, the important part played by sunlight in synchronizing these rhythms was not known.”

When it comes to surgical masks, they were worn a century ago as well, but as they do not seal around the face, they only offer partial protection and do not filter out small airborne particles.

This is why Boston hospital employees then made improvised face masks, out of five layers of gauze. Their frame fitted the face, preventing the filter to touch the mouth and nostrils, and they were replaced every two hours.

Additionally, personal and environmental hygiene at the hospital were at a higher level.

Another contributing factor to the relatively low rates of infections and deaths was the speed with which temporary open-air hospitals were erected.

So, Hobday concludes:

“Today, many countries are not prepared for a severe influenza pandemic.Their health services will be overwhelmed if there is one. Vaccines and antiviral drugs might help. Antibiotics may be effective for pneumonia and other complications. But much of the world’s population will not have access to them.

If another 1918 comes, or the Covid-19 crisis gets worse, history suggests it might be prudent to have tents and pre-fabricated wards ready to deal with large numbers of seriously ill cases. Plenty of fresh air and a little sunlight might help too.”



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