The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

Did you know that the 1918 flu pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), was the origin for all flu pandemics during the past century? Although the flu existed before 1918, scientists later discovered that the 1918 flu had ties to the H1N1 flu that exists today. None of the viral descendants from 1918, however, approaches the pathogenicity of the 1918 parent virus.

Additionally, the way the flu spread in 1918 was different than in previous patterns. Before (and after) 1918, most influenza pandemics developed in Asia and spread from there to the rest of the world. The 1918 pandemic, however, spread “more or less simultaneously in three distinct waves during a twelve-month period in Europe, Asia and North America.”

In the 1918–1919 pandemic, a first or spring wave began in March 1918 and spread unevenly through the United States, Europe, and possibly Asia over the next 6 months. Illness rates were high, but death rates in most locales were not appreciably above normal. A second or fall wave spread globally from September to November 1918 and was highly fatal. In many nations, a third wave occurred in early 1919.

According to Stanford University, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI), at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster. The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10-12 years.

Why was the pandemic in 1918 fatal to so many people? People who usually die of influenza usually develop a secondary infection of lethal pneumonia. The 1918 virus was atypical in that it rapidly overwhelmed the respiratory system as it caused an uncontrollable hemorrhaging that filled the lungs with 24-48 hours. This quick assault on the body did not allow time for pneumonia to develop. Additionally, out of approximately 675,000 Americans who died that year from flu, almost 200,000 deaths were recorded in October alone. So, the second wave was more virulent in the U.S. than the first wave.

Finally, the 1918 flu tended to select young healthy adults over those who had weakened immune systems. In that case, the normal age distribution for flu mortality was reversed completely, leaving the very young, the very old and the infirm left to wonder if the end of the world was near. As with today’s populace who think that flu shots are part of a government conspiracy, in 1918, many people thought that the environment of WWI brought about their pandamic. Some thought it was a form of biological warfare.

There is a strain of truth in the WWI environment, as many soldiers who never left home before were traveling on ships, trains and other vehicles with many other soldiers to unfamiliar places across the U.S. and the globe. Many of these young men died from flu in boot camp, even before they were issued their marching orders. In one case at Fort Jackson, there were more than 60,000 soldiers in training in 1918, and twenty-five percent of those soldiers got the flu. Approximately 18-20 percent of those stricken died.

Although the H1N1 virus appears to be less virulent than the 1918 pandemic, it still can cause disruptions nationwide and globally as people take time off work to recuperate. Even the Army is taking extraordinary precautions to help keep the flow of ‘normal daily life’ going as well as possible. To learn more about the 1918 pandemic, follow the links below:

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