Amid the current Coronavirus crisis, there has been a renewed interest in the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918. Lasting from spring 1918 to early summer 1919, and described as “the deadliest pandemic in history”, the Spanish Flu infected an estimated 500 million people – approximately one-third of the word’s population. It is believed to have killed up to 100 million people.
The Spanish Flu – a big misnomer – did not actually originate in Spain, but is believed to have started in Europe, America and Asia before spreading throughout the rest of the world. The first known-case of Spanish Flu was reported at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918.
The disease was called the “Spanish Flu” because, unlike the rest of the world, Spain remained neutral during World War I and, as such, was free to fully report on the disease. Since nations subjected to total media censorship could read accounts from only Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed that Spain was the country where the pandemic had first sprung from. Even Spain’s king, Alfonso XIII, reportedly contracted the flu.
Pretty much like the current Coronavirus, the Spanish Flu of 1918 was an especially virulent new influenza strain for which there was little or no immunity, enabling it to spread rapidly from person to person around the globe. Mirroring the current social distancing regulations necessitated by the Covid-19 outbreak, businesses, schools, churches were all shut down. Public gatherings were banned. Even coughing, spitting and sneezing in public were prohibited.
The second wave of the pandemic flared up from September through November of 1918, and was much deadlier this time. The fatality rate soared alarmingly. In the United States alone, 195,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu in October. And unlike a normal seasonal flu, which claims predominantly young and elderly victims, the second wave of the Spanish flu displayed a “W curve” – a high death rate among the young and old. There was a huge spike in the middle of the graph, composed of otherwise healthy 25- to 35-year-olds. Not surprisingly, this totally alarmed the medical establishment.
As expected from a virus this deadly, the Spanish Flu took a heavy human toll as it continued to spread through the world. It wiped out entire families, leaving thousands of widows and orphans in its wake. Funeral parlors were inundated, and bodies incessantly piled up. Also, many bereaved people had to dig graves for their own deceased relatives.
Historians have attributed the intense severity of the Spanish flu’s second wave to a mutated virus spread by wartime troop movements. Infected soldiers spread the disease to other military camps across the country, then brought it overseas. In March 1918, 84,000 American soldiers headed across the Atlantic, followed by 118,000 more the following month.
By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic finally came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity. The horrific disease went down in history as the worst epidemic ever, its toll even surpassing all the military deaths in World War I and II combined.
Researchers have conducted extensive studies on the remains of victims of the pandemic. However, they haven’t yet discovered why the strain of Spanish Flu that ravaged the world in 1918 was so deadly.
If you would like to find out more about the Spanish Flu of 1918, I can highly recommend the following books, all of which are now available from Amazon: