Before Zika, before Ebola, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed more humans than all of World War I combined, over 40 million people worldwide! In just over a year, the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ would infect a fifth of the world’s population. It remains to this day THE most devastating epidemic in recorded history. More people died in that deadly year than in 4 years of the Dark Ages’ dreaded Black Death (Bubonic Plague).
By the fall of 1918, WWI was finally winding down in Europe and peace negotiations had begun. America had joined the war, tipping the balance in favor of the Allies and against Germany, Austria & Hungary. Earlier in the year however, in small pockets across the globe, what was first thought to be very bad cases of the common cold began to erupt.
The exact origin of the 1918 Pandemic is unknown. The virus is believed to have mutated in China – a new, rare influenza variant with almost no human immunity. At the time, some thought it was biological warfare spread by the Germans in the trenches of France and Belgium. It was erroneously dubbed The Spanish Flu since some of the largest mortalities were seen in Spain. The first US cases actually appeared at a Kansas army base in the spring of 1918. Few doctors paid attention to the flu in the middle of a raging world war. By the winter of 1918 however, the epidemic could not be ignored.
Children in the streets would skip rope to a frightening new nursery rhyme:
“I had a little bird … Its name was Enza … I opened up the window … And in-flu-enza!”
Thanks to modern steamships, the epidemic methodically circled the globe along trade routes and shipping lines. Ironically, the outbreak swept the world rven quicker due to the mass movements of army troops aboard ships.
The Spanish Flu’s mortality rate was 20 times higher than previous recorded flus. Once people were struck with the disease they died rapid deaths, typically within 24 hours! Death came from a particularly viscous pneumonia until they literally suffocated, struggling to clear fluid filled lungs of a blood-tinged froth that gushed from their mouths. Meanwhile, the relatively new science of infectious disease was helpless to treat it.
Oddly, the flu was most lethal for those between 20 and 40, an unusual pattern since the flu usually killed children and the elderly. Over one quarter all Americans became infected causing 675,000 deaths, ten times as many as died in World War I. Young soldiers, men in their prime, were becoming ill in frighteningly large numbers. Of the U.S. troops who died in WWI, over half were from the flu and not warfare.
Ironically, the end of the war enabled a resurgence in the disease. As the world celebrated Armistice Day, a second wave of the epidemic occurred as troops began returning home. East coast ports reported sick men in massive numbers, suffering with fevers as high as 105 degrees. Within days, the disease had spread westward by train.
With troops coming home having amputations and mustard gas burns, hospitals were already taxed. Confronted with an acute shortage of hospital beds, schools were transformed into emergency hospitals. An instant doctor shortage forced medical students to step up and act as interns, many of them getting sick as well.
That terrible winter, millions more became infected and hundreds of thousands died.
As the disease spread, schools and businesses closed. Telegraph and telephone service collapsed, garbage went uncollected, the mail piled up. Quarantines were imposed on schools, theaters, and even churches. Cities passed laws requiring people to wear cloths masks even though they offered little protection from the virus. Railroads would not accept passengers without a signed doctor’s certificate. Advertisements suggested drinking alcohol prevented infection, causing a run on booze. Funerals were limited to 15 minutes and a quick burial. Corpses piled up with a shortage of coffins and gravediggers.
No one was left untouched by the pandemic. With one-fifth of the world infected, it was impossible to escape. Spain’s King Leopold died of the flu early on. Even US President Wilson caught it in 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles to end the World War 1.
By the spring of 1919, the pandemic blessedly ground to a slow halt, as those that were infected but survived developed immunity. The global death toll sits officially 40 million but is believed by the CDC to be as high as 100 MILLION including the Third World. With today’s jet airlines, such a disease could jump the globe in a matter of hours rather than months. A sobering thought when contemplating our world’s next great pandemic.