Coronavirus and the Sun: A Lesson from The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

The World Health Organization – WHO declared COVID-19 as pandemic affecting thousands of people in the world. Unfortunately, since its appearance there were and still are death casualties.

Naturally, people have become afraid and governments in order to prevent further spreading closed the borders of their countries.

This virus is the main topic to every person in the world and since we live in the era of internet people are constantly browsing to find something about this virus.

People have read that when the warmer temperatures arrive the virus will slowly disappear and even the President Donald Trump last month assured the American public that the coronavirus will “go away in April”. However, some health experts were dubious regarding the possibility of heat to kill the virus stating that there is no sure prediction that the virus will cease infecting people in the summer, nor that it will disappear.

Can the Sun help us in the case of COVID-19?

Experts cannot state for sure that sun exposure can kill the coronavirus, however in terms of other viruses and since coronavirus belongs to this group, heat is something that viruses cannot withstand.

Some experts like Dr. Richard Hobday, an independent researcher in the fields of infection control, public health, and building design, believes that sunlight might be of help. He reflects on past human experiences like the greatest pandemic in recorded history, the Spanish flu. This virus at that time infected around one-third of the world’s population and was manifested by an acute respiratory tract infection.

Dr. Richard Hobday gives an explanation why viruses are less active and less likely to spread during the summertime. The reason for that is the influence of the sunlight, and the fresh air.

The Spanish flu was rapidly spreading at that time and governments also enforced isolation, quarantine, and banned public gatherings. In the treatment of the patients infected with Spanish flu the best recovery results showed the patients that were treated outside. There were less death cases among patients and medical staff thanks to the combination of fresh air and sunlight.

It is scientifically proven that outdoor air acts as a natural disinfectant thus destroying the flu and other harmful germs. On the other hand, the sunlight is germicidal and kills the flu virus.

The biggest toll of the influenza was in the military barracks and troop-ships where the soldiers and sailors were more susceptible to influenza and other complications as a result of the virus. The most common complication was pneumonia, an infection that leads to death just like coronavirus. The rapid spread of the Spanish flu was as a result of the repatriation of troops.

During the treatment of the infected soldiers one of the medical staff in an emergency hospital in Boston had come to the conclusion that the worst health cases of sailors were the ones of soldiers situated in badly-ventilated spaces. Therefore, he put them outdoors in tents, and whenever there was sunlight they were exposed to the sun, outside of the tents. The reports revealed that after the implementation of this therapy the death rate got reduced from 40% to 14%.

Open-air therapy was not something new, but it was used on tuberculosis patients and on the casualties from the Western Front. This type of therapy was used till the fifties of the last century when the antibiotics took their lead in the pharmaceutical world.

Dr. Hobday clarifies the benefits of the outdoors for the patients, for instance, clean air creates a largely sterile environment which is not the case with the hospital wards where the presence of germs is inevitable.

Furthermore, in the sixties of the last century, it has been confirmed that the fresh air is a natural disinfectant by the Ministry of Defense scientists. These experts used the term the Open Air Factor that is present in the air that eliminates airborne bacteria and the flu. They added that this effect can be created also indoors and thus obtaining all these disinfecting powers if the rooms are properly ventilated.

However, this treatment was not fully proceeded as the antibiotics were developed and the fresh air was no longer involved in infection control and hospital design.

Hobday explains:

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.”

A century ago the medical staff also used surgical masks, but they did not seal around the face, just provided partial protection without filtering out small airborne particles. So, in that time Boston hospital employees made improvised face masks, made out of five layers of gauze. The frame of these masks fitted the face, preventing the filter to touch the mouth and nostrils. But, they needed to get replaced every two hours. What greatly helped was also the high level of personal and environmental hygiene at the hospital. In addition to this, the temporary open-air hospitals contributed to relatively low rates of infections and deaths.

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.”

So, there is no harm to implement a technique that showed to be effective a century ago, sunlight, fresh air, and improvised face masks.


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