10 Important Facts About the Spanish Flu: The Deadliest Epidemic in World History

Spanish flu

Spanish flu – facts, death toll, symptoms and transmission

The 1918 Spanish Flu ranks up there as the deadliest flu epidemic in history for quite so many reasons. First of all, the influenza infected about half a billion people across the world. The death count from the flu was estimated to be in the tens of millions. Secondly, and usually unbeknownst to many people, the influenza reared its ugly head beginning around the late 1880s, claiming the lives of thousands of people.

To help us make sense of the death toll, symptoms and transmission of the influenza of 1918, here are 10 very important facts about the Spanish flu epidemic:

The Spanish Flu did not originate from Spain

Perhaps one of the most important things worth mentioning about the Spanish flu of 1918 is that the virus’ origin had nothing to do with Spain. So why was the 1918 flu named after the European country? The flu got its name because Spain at some point was the country with the highest number of infections and death toll. Such was the severity of the flu in Spain that many high profile personalities, including Spain’s monarch Alfonso XIII, got the deadly flu.

Spanish flu

The Influenza of 1918 received its nickname – the Spanish flu – because Spain was considered the hardest hit country at some point in time

The flu mainly destroys the victim’s respiratory system

The flu is deadly in so many ways; however, its most devastating aspect is the harm it does to the infected person’s respiratory system, i.e. the lungs. And due to the fact that it was extremely contagious, the virus run riot in densely populated areas. How does one get infected? A person got infected by inhaling the respiratory droplets that comes out of an infected person who coughed or sneezed or talked. Also, the individual exposed him/herself to virus when he or she touches the surfaces of were the virus had lodged and then exposes the contaminated hands to his or her mouth, nose or eyes.

Did you know: In 2008, scientists discovered three genes in the body created a conducive environment for the flu to wreak harm on the patient’s bronchial tubes and lungs?

Spanish flu ravaged the globe in three waves

Quite characteristic of many influenza epidemics, history has shown that virus often hits the population in waves. The 1918 flu was no exception, as it devastated the world in three waves. According to historians, the first real wave happened in the spring of 1918. It was around the same time that the First World War was drawing to an end. The flu during the first wave was not as deadly as the horrors that were yet to come. The first wave saw infected persons have symptoms such as fever, tiredness and chills. Scientists and historians reason that most of the victims recovered after a few days, with only a few deaths reported.

The second wave of the Spanish flu began in autumn 1918. By then the world was getting its act together as the curtain on the horrific WWI closed. In place of the war came a type of horror not seen for centuries. The second wave of the 1918 flu was miles more severe than the first wave, claiming the lives of the infected in just a couple of days after symptoms showed. The skins of the infected persons became blue as their lungs got inundated with fluids. The mortality rate in the second wave was the highest.

Compared to the second wave, the third wave of the Spanish flu could be described as a walk in the park. The third wave, which flashed through the population in the spring of 1919, did some damage; however, it was not as severe as the first two waves.

Spanish flu

The world’s deadliest flu, the Spanish flu, came in three waves, with the second wave the severest of the three.

Did you know: More than 7 million people lost their lives in the first six months of the 1918 flu outbreak?

There was quite a lot of misinformation about how deadly the virus was

As the first wave swept through Europe, there were some reputable researchers and physicians that tried to alley the public fears by comparing it to the Russian flu of the late 12th century. Medical institutions such as the Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Journal engaged in watering down severity of the 1918 flu in order to advance the government’s war effort in Europe.

To be fair the medical professionals back then hardly knew what exactly they were dealing with. And in order not to spread fear and panic in the public, doctors tried as much as possible to keep their respective town optimistic.

Scientists still have no clue as to where the virus came from

Ask any medical expert or historian where the 1918 flu first emerged from and he or she will struggle to pinpoint its origins. The flu simply caught the world by surprise, engulfing it with such breath-taking speed that countries in Europe and the Americas were left shattered. And even though the global aviation industry was not as developed as it is now, the flu still managed to appear in almost every part of the world within few months.

There have been some theories explaining where the flue came from. Some infectious diseases experts state that the flu originated from a farm in the Midwest of America and then it passed on to other animals before infecting humans. Other historians and virologists claim that the virus first emerged in an army base in Kansas, U.S., before it jumped on board military ships heading to fight in Europe during WWI. The third theory is that the flu emerged from Asia, particularly from China, and then it got carried by migrant workers moving to America and Europe.

Over half a billion people worldwide got infected

The sheer scale of the 1918 flu was something the world had never seen before. It was estimated that more than 500 million people got infected around the globe. That figure translated to about one-third of the world’s population at the time.

With the exclusion of a few places on earth, the flu ravaged through the globe, reaching as far as the Artic and isolated islands in the Pacific.

In Latin America for example, 10 out of every 1000 people died; while in Africa, 15 out of 1,000 died. The death toll in Asia was 35 out of 1,000 people.

1918 Flu Pandemic

The 1918 Flu Pandemic was truly a global scourge, destroying the lives of tens of millions as it spread | Image: 1919 Tokyo, Japan

Immunity was a rarity during the Spanish flu outbreak

The Spanish flu quickly claimed the lives of people with underlying medical conditions such as asthma, pneumonia, heart disease, diabetes etc. Also infected persons over the age of 65, pregnant women and young children stood at a greater risk. Surprisingly, individuals that typically prevailed over infectious illnesses succumbed to the influenza. Such was the flu’s ruthlessness that healthy military personnel, people who are often heralded as having strong immune systems, took ill. It was estimated that more soldiers died from the flu than on the battle field in WWI. In the US navy for example, the flu infected 40% of its members. The US army saw 36% of its members infected.

Infected people that suffered hemorrhages in the nose and lungs died extremely fast, in many cases they died in less than three days. As the virus mutated, the infections skyrocketed, likewise the mortality.

The 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 20-50 million people worldwide

To this day, death toll from the 1918 flu remains unknown. Many researchers, however, place it between 20 and 50 million. At that death toll, the epidemic killed more people than WWI.

Some historians have even stated that the flu claimed up to 100 million people, or the equivalent of 3% of the world’s population at the time.

The difficulty in calculating the death toll stemmed from the lack of adequate medical records. This phenomenon was particularly prevalent in many developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Also, due to the fact that many Western countries tried to censor the information that reached the public, attempts weren’t made to properly compile medical records.

Spanish flu outbreak

The Spanish flu claimed more lives than World War I | Image: American Red Cross medical professionals attend to flu patients in makeshift hospitals inside Oakland Municipal Auditorium, 1918.

The Spanish flu had no effective cure or vaccines at the time

As at when the outbreak hit the world, there were no drugs or antivirals to fight against the flu. Authorities and scientists simply had to control the spread as much as possible by introducing several public health protocols. If the Spanish flu had no cure or vaccine at the time, how did it fizzle out? Some scientists reason that the population attained some sort of herd immunity, causing the virus to lose steam.

Not until the 1940s did the world get a licensed flu vaccine. In the decades that came after that, scientists across the world worked very hard to produce vaccines that sort of kept them prepared for any future outbreaks.

The flu forced many businesses and non-essential services to shut down

To stem it spread, authorities across the world ordered people to wear masks as the virus was mainly spread primarily through inhaling respiratory droplets. Additionally, schools, churches, businesses and other non-essential ventures were closed.

Essential services like morgues and hospitals were full to capacity. Authorities in the US had to transform schools and churches into makeshift hospitals, while the corpses kept stacking up.

Making matters worse were the acute shortages of medical personnel. This was primarily due to the fact that many countries across the world were still coming to grips with horrors of WWI. Also, the flue claimed the lives of many health workers that medical students had to step in to plug the gap.

Did you know: During the Spanish flu outbreak, the penalty for not wearing a mask in public in San Francisco was $5?

Other horrific facts about the 1918 influenza outbreak

Spanish flu facts

Image on the right: A group of Seattle police officers with face masks

  1. A staggering 10% of the inhabitants of Tahiti lost their lives in just under a month.
  2. In Spain, the flu was nicknamed “Naples soldier”; in Germany, it was called “Blitzkatarrh”; and in the UK, it was called “Flanders grippe” or “Spanish lady”.
  3. The Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia was a massive spreader of the virus, as tens of thousands of people got infected on that day, September 26. The city’s authorities downplayed the severity of the flu, stating that it was merely a normal flu. The outcome was a complete catastrophe, as more than a thousand people in the city died in just two weeks.
  4. The age demographic that had the lowest death rate was those above 75. Surprisingly, the flu seemed to spare people with slightly weaker immune system than healthy folks.
  5. In order to mitigate the spread in densely populated cities, some cities – for example New York City – ordered businesses to run shifts. Similarly, measures were put in place to reduce overcrowding on the New York City subways.
  6. During the negotiation process for the Treaty of Versailles, US President Woodrow Wilson and some high ranking members of his administration reportedly got infected.
  7. A year into the influenza of 1918, the average life expectancy in the US dropped by more than 10 years.
  8. While authorities in other European countries kept close tabs on what information got out to the public, Spain did not have that. As a result, a clear picture of the extent of devastation was seen in Spain.
  9. The Spanish flu is sometimes called the “forgotten pandemic” because at that time the world’s attention was divided due to destruction caused by WWI.
  10. The Spanish flu pandemic devastated whole communities and upturned the lives of millions across the world. In America for example, more than half a million Americans died. The epidemic was compounded by shortages of medical equipment and personnel.

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