The Spanish flu of 1918 was the most severe influenza outbreak of the 20th century, in terms of total numbers of deaths and the most devastating epidemics in human history, affecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans. The Spanish flu was first observed in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia before quickly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were directed to wear masks, schools, theatres, and businesses were closed and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march.
Influenza, which is caused by influenza type A subtype H1N1 virus, transmits from person to person through airborne respiratory secretions. An outbreak can occur if a unique strain of influenza virus emerges against which the population has no immunity.
- In the United States, “flu season” regularly runs from late fall into spring. In an average year, more than 200,000 Americans develop flu-related complications. Over the past three decades, some 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related U.S. deaths have been reported annually.
- Young children, people over age 65, pregnant women, and people with definite medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease, face a higher risk of flu-related complications, including pneumonia, ear, and sinus infections, and bronchitis.
- A flu pandemic, such as the one in 1918, occurs when an especially virulent new influenza strain for which there’s little or no immunity appears and spreads quickly from person to person around the globe.
Spanish Flu Symptoms
- The first wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was generally mild. The sick experienced typical flu symptoms as chills, fever, and fatigue and usually recovered after several days.
- However, when a second, highly contagious wave of influenza surfaced with retribution in the fall of that same year. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate.
How was the term Spanish Flu coined?
- In the spring of 1918, just as the human-made horrors of World War I were finally starting to come down, Mother Nature unleashed the most lethal strain of influenza in modern history. The pandemic occurred in three waves. The first arose in early March 1918, during World War I. Although it remains uncertain where the virus first surfaced, it quickly spread through western Europe, and by July it had spread to Poland.
- Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain impartial during World War I. Unlike in the Allied and Central Powers nations, where wartime censors subdued news of the flu to avoid affecting morale, the Spanish media was free to report on it in gory detail.
- News of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918, and coverage only increased after the Spanish King Alfonso XIII came down with a lewd case a week later. Since nations undergoing a media blackout could only read in-depth accounts from Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed that the country was the pandemic’s ground zero. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus had spread to them from France, so they took to calling it the “French Flu.”
While it’s unlikely that the “Spanish Flu” originated in Spain, scientists are still unsure of its source. France, China, and Britain have all been suggested as the potential birthplace of the virus, as has the United States, where the first known case was reported at a military base in Kansas on March 11, 1918.
Fighting the Spanish Flu
When the 1918 flu hit, doctors and scientists were doubtful of what caused it or how to treat it. Unlike today, there were no effective vaccines or antivirals, drugs that tackle the flu. (The first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s. By the following decade, vaccine manufacturers could routinely produce vaccines that would help control and prevent future pandemics.)
Aspirin Poisoning and the Flu
With no cure for the flu, many doctors prescribed medication that they felt would mitigate symptoms including aspirin, which had been trademarked by Bayer in 1899. This patent expired in 1917, meaning new companies were able to produce the drug during the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Before the spike in deaths attributed to the Spanish Flu in 1918, the U.S. Surgeon General, Navy, and the Journal of the American Medical Association had all recommended the use of aspirin. Medical professionals advised patients to take up to 30 grams per day; a dose is now known to be toxic. (For comparison’s sake, the medical consensus today is that doses above four grams are risky.) Symptoms of aspirin poisoning involve hyperventilation and pulmonary oedema, or the buildup of fluid in the lungs, and it’s now believed that many of the October deaths were caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning.
Spanish Flu Pandemic Ends
By the summertime of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed an immunity.
Around 90 years later, in 2008, researchers declared they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia.
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