19 May 2010

Disasters: The Spanish Flu

By Delia DeLeest

In the fall of 1918, WWI was winding down and people thought it was all "over, over there," but a bigger, more deadly enemy, one that didn't use bombs or bullets was taking over the world. It was called The Spanish Flu and it knew no boundaries and didn't play by any rules.

The first wave of the outbreak happened in March of 1918 and a second, more deadly wave occurred in October of the same year. More American soldiers died of the influenza than were killed in action – one in fifteen of the American men stationed in Europe died of it, overall, ten times more Americans were killed by the flu than in the war. On a single day in October, the fifteenth, 1,500 Berliners died of the disease and in the month of October, London lost 2225 of its citizens to the same. This was more than all the deaths from four years of German bombing raids over Britain.

It wasn't just happening in Europe either. Nearly 2/3 of the Eskimos living on the coast of Labrador, 20% of the population of Kimberly, South Africa, and 90% of the population of Western Samoa all were lost to the plague. There's no exact number of the deaths caused by the flu, but it's estimated at somewhere between 20 and 50 million people worldwide.

Unlike many diseases, the Spanish flu preyed on the young and healthy; most of its victims were people aged 20-40. The virus affected a person's immune system, making it go into overdrive, thus, the healthier your immune system, the deadlier the virus. A person could be struck by the flu and within hours be dead.

You'd think from the name that this strain of the influenza originated in Spain, but in fact, it struck both the U.S and the rest of Europe before arriving in Spain. But because Spain's news wasn't censored, the papers were much more open and forthcoming about the effects and spreading of the disease, and when the Spanish king became gravely ill and was one of the world's first most prominent victims of the bug, thus receiving widespread news coverage, it was erroneously assumed that Spain was the birthplace of the pandemic. As a matter of fact, no one ever actually pinpointed the exact origin of the flu and there's been guesses as varied as China and Kansas.

Though the war didn't cause the flu, it certainly helped spread it. The back and forth travel of soldiers between countries and continents helped fling the germs worldwide in a much speedier fashion than it would have otherwise.

Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it stopped. After killing 3-6% of the world's population in a matter of months, October being the deadliest, by the end of November, it had almost entirely disappeared. Though no one is sure why, it's suspected that the virus eventually mutated to a less lethal strain, which is common among flu viruses.

A child's jump rope jingle from the time sums up the suddenness of an influenza attack:
"I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And In-flu-Enza."


Joanna Waugh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joanna Waugh said...

My mother is in her late eighties and was born downstate. When we'd drive down to visit relatives, we always passed this tiny, one street town of about a dozen houses. Mom said every last resident was killed by the 1918 influenza. It remained a ghost town the whole time she was growing up.

Victoria Janssen said...

I find this particular flu epidemic fascinating - another new book seems to come out every few years.

Blythe Gifford said...

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry was particularly good. Given the trauma of this epidemic, it's interesting that it no longer registers in the American national memory.

librarypat said...

It is amazing how rapidly the flu traveled back then. I can understand troop movements being largely responsible, but there had to be many places it hit that were not infected by that path. If person to person contact was necessary, it seems like it must have taken only one outside contact to spread to remote areas.
Thanks for an interesting post.