U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
The factors that drive spatial heterogeneity and diffusion of pandemic influenza remain debated. We characterized the spatiotemporal mortality patterns of the 1918 influenza pandemic in British India and studied the role of demographic factors, environmental variables, and mobility processes on the observed patterns of spread. Fever-related and all-cause excess mortality data across 206 districts in India from January 1916 to December 1920 were analyzed while controlling for variation in seasonality particular to India. Aspects of the 1918 autumn wave in India matched signature features of influenza pandemics, with high disease burden among young adults, (moderate) spatial heterogeneity in burden, and highly synchronized outbreaks across the country deviating from annual seasonality. Importantly, we found population density and rainfall explained the spatial variation in excess mortality, and long-distance travel via railroad was predictive of the observed spatial diffusion of disease. A spatiotemporal analysis of mortality patterns during the 1918 influenza pandemic in India was integrated in this study with data on underlying factors and processes to reveal transmission mechanisms in a large, intensely connected setting with significant climatic variability. The characterization of such heterogeneity during historical pandemics is crucial to prepare for future pandemics.