Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Apocalypse

Article by Robert Whitley. Edited by Sarah Fagg. Additional Research by Robert Whitley.

Miitary Hospital for sufferers of Spanish Flu in 1918 Camp Funston, Kansas.

Throughout history, disease has reared its ugly head. Any school child will tell you about the devastation caused by the ‘Black Death’; it would be an insult to the Native Americans to forget about the millions who died after being exposed to European diseases; a quick consultation with the Old Testament and it won’t be long before you are reminded of the terrifying plagues of Egypt. So why is it that one of the most destructive of all these epidemics is almost absent from modern memory?

The first case of Spanish flu was recorded in the United States in June 1918 beginning a deadly pandemic that would not be over until December 1920. Although estimates differ, as many as 100 million people could have died from the flu with the number of overall fatalities lying somewhere between 10-20% of those infected. Some estimates have asserted that half of the world’s population was infected by the virus. Do not let the name mislead you; there was nothing Spanish about the Spanish flu. It almost certainly originated outside of Europe and infected people on every continent. The name comes from the fact that Spain was not a combatant in World War One and therefore did not have the same level of public censorship as other countries. This gave the perception that Spain had been particularly hard hit by the virus.

The exact origin of Spanish flu is difficult to locate. Theories have stipulated that the virus could have mutated in China, the United States or Austria. One theory suggests that while duck flu cannot infect humans, and visa versa, both duck and human flu can infect pigs. Therefore locations with populations of pigs, ducks, and humans in close proximity provide the ideal breeding ground for mutated forms of flu. The pigs can then pass the new forms of flu onto humans; however this is just one of several theories. What is more certain is that the timing could not have been better for it to spread. The mobilisation of troops across the globe coupled with new innovations in transport allowed the virus to rapidly multiply. In addition to this, the low immunities caused by stress, injuries, and malnutrition during the war made people more vulnerable. All of these factors took a devastating toll on human life.

Tokyo 1919- women wear masks to protect themselves against Spanish Flu.

In the United States of America over a quarter of the population was infected. In Alaska entire communities were ruined. Samoa was the worst hit with 90% of the population catching the virus and 20% of the population dying. Despite this devastation there is a lesson to be learnt. In Japan only 0.425% of the population was killed because the government severely restricted maritime travel between Islands. Furthermore, American Samoa and New Caledonia didn’t suffer from a single death thanks to their policy of placing infected individuals into quarantine.

Fortunately for the world the pandemic ended suddenly, probably due to a mutation into a less lethal version. Yet after infecting half the world’s population and killing as much as 20% of it; why has this episode in history been forgotten? I have already mentioned the censorship in countries involved in the war as a factor, but this alone is not enough. One might point to the fact that diseases were so common during this period that people thought little of a pandemic like this. After all it usually only infected an area for a short amount of time and many cases were probably never recorded. However there is an overriding reason why one of the worst pandemics in history was largely ignored: the Great War was still raging when the outbreak occurred. Andrew Price-Smith has controversially argued that initial outbreaks helped the allies to win the war. The world’s media was firmly on the war rather than the spread of a particularly harmful flu. Unlike most types of flu, Spanish flu found its primary targets in young men. The stronger the immune system, the more violent the response meaning that young men were particularly vulnerable to dying. Seen alongside the millions of men dying in the war, with many more injured, those who died from flu inevitably received less attention.

Seattle, a tram conductor refuses passengers attempting to board the tram without a protective mask

Over the years Spanish flu has been forgotten. Both bird flu and Spanish flu were also comprised of the deadly H1N1 strain. Luckily for us, bird flu was nowhere near as deadly. For those who scoffed at the precautions taken by the World Health Organisation against bird flu and swine flu, learn from the lessons of history. While we may live in sanitary conditions, and advances in medicine offer us some comfort, the population is now far greater than could have ever been imagined at the start of the 20th century. It is now possible to travel the entire globe in just a day. If a virus as deadly as Spanish flu were to rear its ugly head again, the consequences could be far greater.

On a more optimistic note, from my research there appears to be a very limited amount of information in circulation about the social, political and cultural impact of the Spanish flu. Perhaps this would be a good line of inquiry for a future project? Just a suggestion!

 Dates: June 1918 and December 1920
 Estimated Dead: 50-100 million
 Estimated Infected: 500+ million
 Cause of death: Pneumonia

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