UF researchers uncover surprising patterns with the spread of the great flu of 1918

In 1918, an unusually deadly flu swept the world, claiming 50 to 100 million lives in a pandemic often called the Spanish flu. Kyra Grantz, a research assistant in UF’s Department of Biology and Emerging Pathogens Institute, hopes to help prevent such an outbreak from happening again. With Derek Cummings, professor of biology, she has studied how sociodemographic markers and urban infrastructure affected the spread of the flu in Chicago in that terrifying year.

The Spanish flu, so-named because of disproportionate press coverage of its incidence in Spain, is the ancestor of all influenza (H1N1) epidemics since. Its direct descendant is swine flu, which is less deadly than the 1918 strain. While typical flu mortality is 0.1 percent, the 1918 rate skyrocketed up to 20 percent in some areas. The phenomenon has been a topic of fascination for researchers who aim to discover how and why the Spanish flu was so devastating. “It’s a pet project for a lot of us,” said Grantz, whose examination of the 1918 pandemic revolves around potential health disparities that exacerbated the flu’s effects. Grantz uses regression analysis on flu mortality and sociodemographic data by census tract to determine spatiotemporal clustering, which can elucidate why some areas in Chicago were worse affected. Using 100-year-old data collected by the US Census and the Chicago Department of Health that include maps of Chicago with point locations given for reported flu and pneumonia-related deaths, she’s found that mortality rates increased with illiteracy and unemployment and decreased with homeownership. Analyzing the coincidence of these variables with the point data allows her to identify the spatiotemporal clusters of flu cases; for example, the study found that within 200 meters, death from flu infection was 1.2 times more likely to be accompanied by a second death within the week, and within 100 meters, coinciding deaths were 1.3 times more likely. This subtle but importance difference suggests that neighborhood-level outbreaks are a vulnerable point in disease control.


young woman standing in archway Kyra Grantz Evan Barton

“This really small, really simple — not even alive, depending on who you talk to — molecule affects almost 400 million people per year.”

Grantz received her BA in Biology at the University of Chicago, where she had focused on lab-based research in microbiology and bacterial genetics. Then, she took an epidemiology course that introduced her to virology at the population level, which she realized offers “more ability to make a large-scale impact.” She explains that understanding patterns of transmission is essential to developing effective prevention and control techniques.

“There’s something fundamental — and more fun — in studying what you can directly observe. It’s more tangible,” she said. Before graduation, she cold-emailed a couple of experts in epidemiology and connected with Cummings. They both arrived at UF in August 2015 and began working on a series of research projects that use statistical and mathematical modeling to monitor and predict the spread of contemporary epidemics such as Zika and dengue, as well as historical events such as the 1918 pandemic. “There is something really fascinating to bacteria and viruses in particular,” said Grantz, explaining how she got hooked on epidemiology. For example, dengue is “this really small, really simple — not even alive, depending on who you talk to — molecule that affects almost 400 million people per year. That’s a fascinating phenomenon. There’s not really a better word for it.” As a budding scientist, she was struck by “the idea of being able to build things up from the bottom and something larger from that.” Indeed, her paper, which develops an epidemiological model from 100-year-old public health data, well reflects this philosophy.

Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Nov. 21, 2016.

Read more about Grantz and Cummings’ work in Ytori.

UF political science professors are a major resource for media.

UF political science professors Daniel A. Smith and Michael McDonald have been featured as voting experts in nearly 60 news outlets — international, national, and regional — during the 2016 presidential campaign. Quoted directly or indirectly on a weekly, and recently daily, basis, the two have become a UF tag-team on all things Election 2016.

Smith, Professor of Political Science and UF Research Foundation Professor, focuses on ballot issues, voting rights, and the impact that electoral institutions have on political participation across the American states. For the past 15 years, he has headed ElectionSmith, Inc., gathering data on voting and elections and serving as an expert on various lawsuits dealing with voting rights, gerrymandering, and ballot measures. For example, Smith worked with the ACLU of Florida and other voting rights groups to successfully extend the voter registration deadline in the state after Hurricane Matthew shut down most coastal communities during the final few days of registration.

photo of McDonald and Smith

Michael McDonald, left, and Daniel Smith

In light of the current election season’s emphasis on minority turnout, Smith’s data have been of great interest to a number of media outlets. During the early voting period in Florida, Smith’s data on Hispanic and African American turnout have been frequently cited. On occasion, a spin is put on his findings, suggesting that the data shows a clear win for the party of the journalist’s choice, but Smith is available to analyze and contextualize his findings and answer questions to slow the spin. Journalists from Politico, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and more have used Smith as an expert source. He is regularly quoted by The New York Times, with six different articles featuring him in the five weeks leading up to Election Day.

Smith’s data also include demographic trends, and because he’s tracked party affiliation, race and ethnicity, registration, and votes cast for every presidential election back to 2008, he’s able to show that Floridians aged 65 and up are still a powerful voting bloc, while Hispanics have dramatically shifted away from the GOP. His data are an excellent source for other political scientists, as well as journalists, attorneys, political consultants, and lobbyists to understand the sociopolitical shifts Florida’s electorate.

Associate Professor of Political Science Michael McDonald’s work focuses on voter turnout and redistricting’s effects on voter eligibility and access. His project includes the website ElectProject.org, which features data on these two realms, and DistrictBuilder, an open-source programming project to create web-based collaborative redistricting software, which supports the Public Mapping Project. Throughout the 2016 election season, McDonald has weighed in on the partisan primaries and early voting. He has been a featured expert in election coverage by television news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC and in newspapers such as The New York Times and USAToday, as well as NPR.

Having worked in exit polling, McDonald is well equipped to speak on public concerns about voter fraud and poll rigging, which he explains are both rare phenomena. He also reports daily on early voting and tracks it with notable moments in the campaign; speaking to the press, he slows the spin on how much a candidate’s latest gaffe or scandal changed voter convictions or spurred early voting. On election night, McDonald will be working with the Associated Press to call the election.

When they’re not teaching, researching, or speaking to the press, McDonald and Smith are active on Twitter, engaging in a national dialogue about voting issues. Twitter’s instant-sharing public forum has been become a social thermometer for hot-button issues of the past few years. The platform invigorates social and political discourse and, increasingly, serves as an outlet for academics to connect with the general public.

Smith and McDonald have established themselves as invaluable resources for informed media coverage of the 2016 election, affirming the University of Florida’s reputation as a relevant and diligent institution of higher learning.