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Coronavirus pandemic is not a ‘once-in-a-century problem’

The COVID-19 outbreak is not the first pandemic in the last 100 years and is thus not a “once-in-a-century problem,” contrary to what newly appointed Acting Economic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua recently claimed.

The current pandemic is the fifth influenza pandemic since the 1918-20 Spanish flu and the second in the 21st century.

Beyond these, there are other pandemics.

The HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) epidemic started in 1981 and reached pandemic proportions years ago, leaving 32 million deaths by the end of 2018.

The “longest running” is the cholera pandemic, ongoing since 1961. About 21,000 to 143,000 people worldwide die every year of cholera.

Responding to Press Secretary Martin Andanar’s question on how long it would take to come up with a COVID-19 recovery plan, Chua said in an April 22 virtual presser:

Una po, itong problema natin sa COVID virus infection, this is a once in a century problem. In fact, iyong last pandemic is the 1920 global flu pandemic. So ngayon, 2020, eksakto 100 years, so wala po talagang nakakaalam na mangyayari ito; hindi po natin alam kung gaano kalalim ang problema. Basta ang alam lang natin, hindi natin alam anong mangyayari. Pero handa po tayo kasi ang una po nating ginawa sa Pilipinas ay iyong tamang desisyon na mag-impose ng isang enhanced community quarantine
(First of all, our problem with the COVID virus infection that this is a once-in-a-century problem. In fact, the last pandemic is the 1920 global flu pandemic. So now, 2020, it’s exactly 100 years, so we don’t know what would happen and the depth of the problem. What all of us know is we don’t know what will happen. But we are ready because what we first did in the Philippines is to make the right decision to impose an enhanced community quarantine).

Chua was recently appointed acting National Economic and Development Authority Secretary Karl Chua, replacing Ernesto Pernia who resigned April 17 due to differences with other government officials on how to shore up the economy ravaged by the crisis. Chua is a former finance undersecretary and senior economist of the World Bank.

A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. Pandemics arise from epidemics or outbreaks of disease confined to a single country or one part of the world.

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus different from those that cause seasonal flu emerges and spreads around the world. Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza viruses, WHO said.

The four pandemics that preceded the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are the 1918-20 Spanish flu, 1957-58 Asian flu, 1968-69 Hong Kong flu and the 2009-10 swine flu.

At least 50 million people worldwide died in the two-year Spanish flu caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin, making it the “most severe” pandemic to date.

The 1957-58 Asian flu was traced to the H2N2 virus that was first reported in Singapore and then in Hong Kong. The pandemic exacted 1.1 million deaths worldwide.

The 1968-69 Hong Kong flu emanated from the virus H3N2 and left also about 1 million dead worldwide, many of them 65 years and older. The H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza A virus and is associated with severe illness in older people, according to the CDC.

The H1N1pdm09 virus was behind the 2009-10 swine flu, the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century. First detected in the United States, it contained a unique combination of influenza genes not previously identified in animals or people.

From 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide died from the swine flu during its first year, most of them below 65 years old. The virus continues to circulate as a seasonal flu virus.

WHO’s regional office for Europe said of the 2009 pandemic: “It was the first pandemic for which many member states had developed comprehensive pandemic plans describing the public health measures to be taken, aimed at reducing illness and fatalities. For the first time, pandemic vaccine was developed, produced and deployed in multiple countries during the first year of the pandemic.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic started in Wuhan, Hubei in China in December. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has infected 2.7 million people and led to 190,896 deaths as of April 23.

On the origin of the novel coronavirus, WHO said, “All available evidence to date suggests that the virus has a natural animal origin and is not a manipulated or constructed virus.”

Infection with HIV has reached pandemic proportions since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) were reported in 1981. UNAIDS recorded 74.9 million infections and 32 million deaths as of December 2018. About 1.7 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2018 alone, it said.

Called the “forgotten pandemic,” the current cholera pandemic started in South Asia in 1961 and reached Africa in 1971 and the Americans in 1991. Cholera, which is spread when people consume food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, is now endemic in many countries.

While up to 80 percent of cases can be successfully treated with oral rehydration solution and an oral vaccine is available, experts say the vaccine is not a replacement for adequate water and sanitation.

“Vaccination will not solve the cholera problem but only buy us some time,” cholera expert Dominique Legros said. “Unless we plan mid- and long-term water and sanitation interventions, cholera is going to reappear as soon as immunity to the vaccine wanes. There are no shortcuts.”


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2006, August 11). The global HIV/AIDS pandemic, 2006. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Past pandemics. Retrieved from

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2020, March 20). Pandemic: Disease outbreak. Retrieved from

Harris, J. B., LaRocque, R. C., Qadri, F., Ryan, E. T., & Calderwood, S. B. (2012). Cholera. The Lancet, 379(9835), 2466–2476. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(12)60436-x

Kilbourne, E. D. (2006). Influenza pandemics of the 20th century. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12(1), 9-14.

UNAIDS. (n.d.). Global HIV & AIDS statistics — 2019 fact sheet. Retrieved from

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World Health Organization. (2010, February 24). What is a pandemic? Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2018, October 22). Cholera: The forgotten pandemic. Retrieved from

World Health Organizaiton. (2019, January 17). Cholera. Retrieved from


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