CDC creates 'Oregon Trail'-style computer game to boost flu awareness

To promote its public health mission this flu season, the CDC turned to an unexpected medium — old-school computer games.

Earlier this month, the CDC's Center for Preparedness and Response released "1918 Pandemic Trail," a desktop game based on "Oregon Trail," the 1970s computer game in which users hunt wild animals, cross rivers and fend off cholera as they guide their wagons across the western U.S. The original computer game, which takes place in 1848, was designed to teach school children about pioneer life.

"The CDC created the '1918 Pandemic Trail' game ... to educate the public on the history of flu and the role the CDC plays in pandemic preparedness," Cate Shockey, a health communicator with the CDC and creator of the computer game, told Becker's Hospital Review via email. "The play off of the popular computer game 'Oregon Trail' helps create the time period as well as bring a twist of nostalgia to kids who grew up playing the game."

The CDC's computer game starts in Philadelphia on Sept. 28, 1918, amid the U.S.'s most deadly flu pandemic.

"The 1918 pandemic produced the greatest influenza death total in recorded history, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide," the CDC said in the computer game. By contrast, an estimated 80,000 people died and 900,000 people were hospitalized from flu-related complications during the 2017-18 flu season.

"Today we have a global surveillance system, antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, antibiotics to treat secondary infections and the ability to develop vaccines," the CDC said. But 100 years ago, flu prevention chiefly consisted of avoiding those who were infected.

To begin the CDC's game, users choose from three characters, all of whom are vulnerable to flu infection: a letter carrier, a farmer and a soldier.

"Your mission is to make it through one day in the fall of 1918 and avoid infection from the flu," the game prompts. "Scientists have not yet discovered viruses and cannot identify the cause of the outbreak … To keep from getting sick, officials advise people to: eat well, keep their feet dry [and] avoid crowds."

To play the "1918 Pandemic Trail" computer game, click here. The CDC said the game will be available for a limited time.

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