Despite its name, the flu pandemic of 1918 did not start in Spain. In fact it spread there rather late in the day; but the uncensored Spanish press was the first to report the outbreak. The countries engaged in fighting World War I had a news blackout on anything that might cause panic, so … ‘Spanish flu’ it became. The first cases were probably in Kansas, USA, where the virus started as ‘ordinary’ flu in March 1918. It soon mutated into a virulent strain which, unusually, proved most deadly in the young and healthy.
The war enabled the flu to spread rapidly. It was almost certainly brought by US servicemen to the Front, where the appalling conditions in the trenches ensured that it got a grip on already weakened soldiers. When the sick were shipped home, the infection was transmitted to the civilian population. Soon flu victims were dying worldwide. Eventually about a third of the world’s population was affected.
Symptoms were so severe that at first the flu was often diagnosed as cholera, typhoid or dengue. The disease worked rapidly – victims might start to feel ill in the morning and be dead by nightfall. Recent research suggests it may have been a strain of H1N1 virus which killed by triggering an allergic overreaction of the body’s immune system – thus explaining the high mortality rate in young adults with strong immune systems.
As the Armistice was celebrated, the pandemic took hold. Hospitals were already overflowing with war-wounded and because many doctors and nurses were still at the Front, care of flu victims was hopelessly lacking. The virus galloped round the world until late 1919 when new cases dropped sharply, although deaths continued into 1920 as the virus mutated again.
When was the Spanish Flu Pandemic: 1918-1919
Where was the Spanish Flu Pandemic: Worldwide
What was the Spanish Flu Pandemic death toll: 50-100 million (16 million in India alone)
You should know: Altogether some 675,000 Americans died in the flu pandemic, 43,000 of whom were servicemen, in the USA restrictions were placed on travel and gauze face masks distributed in an attempt to control the pandemic.