Looking back on the Spanish Flu

Written by Salome Tsikarishvili

Looking back on the Spanish Flu

Covid-19 wasn’t the first virus to terrorize the human race: epidemics and plagues have long been intertwined in our history.

A little over a century ago, in the early 20th Century, the world witnessed a pandemic known as the Spanish Flu.

Our first Modern Plague

The Spanish Flu could be given the title of the first modern plague as it was the first disease to truly take advantage of the interconnected world of the twentieth century. The virus traveled by boat, railway, and every other possible link we had established between each other during the war.

It was also born in a particularly interesting period of medical history when doctors knew that such things as viruses existed but they didn’t know how to see them.

The First Steps of the Virus

You may be wondering where the first modern virus came from, but you'd be disappointed to discover that there is no definitive answer. There are theories but we don’t have concrete evidence to say where it comes from and who was the patient zero.

Several accounts start the story in Canada with some reports placing it in the United States but here we come across another problem. The issue is that if there was an outbreak in the US it may have been reported late.

The doctors at the time considered the flu a seasonal thing and the cases didn’t even need to be reported. When the first signs of the epidemic showed in camp Funston the medical community of the country started fighting measles instead as it was deemed as a worse enemy.

So while the doctors were concentrating their efforts on the wrong contagion, the troops that carried the virus went aboard ships. From training camps of the US, they ended up on the shores of France and maybe Britain.

In early April of 1918, the first wave of the virus swept among the newly arrived American recruits and it didn’t take long for it to spread to the French soldiers as they lived and trained close to each other.

While this wave was mild, it was referred to as 3-day fever, based on the fact that it was swift, left you out of action for days, and then slow on your feet for equally as long.

As you would imagine trenches were the ‘perfect’ location to place a virus in. Add to that malnourished and immuno-compromised soldiers and railways connecting the camps together and you have created perhaps one of the most perfect Petri dishes for a virus growth - but the petri dish, in this case, isn’t in a safe environment in a lab - but rather out in the world left to infect people, evolve and get more deadly.

To add to why this was bad in a city a virus will eventually burn through its fuel. Those who are vulnerable will die and those who aren’t will build immunity, but this wasn’t a city. This was a war. Meaning recruits were rotated sometimes monthly which meant that the virus could continue to live as it wouldn’t run out of people to infect.

The troops started reporting in the hospitals for flu and in a single month hospitals were becoming over-crowded with sometimes over 30,000 patients. Only then when it started to interfere with the war did the medical community turn its attention on the virus and it was because at this stage of the war troops weren’t allowed to be weak to counter the German offensive.

Hidden Behind the Censorship

You would think there would be a lot of articles to use here for us to track the early growth of the disease but I am sorry to disappoint. After the outbreaks started getting worse the nations started enforcing mass censorship on their media.

The Germans weren't allowed to find out about the weakness of the Allies which meant that the newspapers and the magazines were mostly denying its existence. Until the disease started infecting the civilians and its existence became impossible to hide it continued this way. But then the virus arrived in Madrid.

Spain was neutral in the First World War and as such, it didn’t need to censor anything. So the virus achieved great coverage. Ironically the fact that Spain didn’t cover it up made people believe it originated there and earned it the name of “Spanish Flu”.

Deadly Changes

Eventually, the virus also infected the German troops and 1918 was drawing to a close. The war was close to an end and the treaties were being drafted and people were probably thinking that they would never have to think about the virus ever again. But the trenches changed the virus.

Again we don’t know exactly maybe while traveling among the humans the originally avian virus adapted and grew more lethal but the exact cause for the change or mutation is unknown.

What we do know is that after this the virus grew more deadly. The new flu didn’t kill the too young, too old, or the immunocompromised but healthy people at the prime of their lives.

Some of the generals in the army tried to stop the recruitments but they were largely ignored. The logic was that the war was about to end and they couldn’t let up the pressure. While the next drafts were canceled it was already too late.

Weeks after this declaration camps would begin to run out of coffins and on the civilian front, the things were worse. Hospitals were over-filled and most researchers working on the cure and the vaccine were doing this with half their staff ill or dying. Officials in the US were denying the existence of the flu and censoring it as much as possible to keep morale high.

There were attempts at the vaccine yes but as mentioned above the doctors didn’t even see what they were fighting. They produced treatment with all the bacteria they knew in their minds hoping that it would somehow work. It was highly experimental and also highly prone to failure.

Though there were positives. New treatments were developed to drain the lungs and take care of secondary pneumonia the virus caused. The red cross made a new system that tracked the virus movement to get nurses to the location before the outbreaks occurred. But the virus kept killing and the American president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, did nothing to stop its growth, letting the troops infected with a lethal strain of the virus proceed to France.

The Flu continued killing and through its efforts may have influenced a number of events around the world.

For example, India registered the highest number of flu deaths in their country but because of held over hesitance from the way the British had handled their black plague epidemic a couple of decades ago they accepted none of the little help they were offered.

The only power helping the citizens was the independence movement which may have strengthened their support in the country. It especially affected isolated, native populations that were more prone to the diseases.

The only place registering zero deaths was American Samoa which immediately isolated itself and stayed that way till 1920.

As time progressed waves of the virus kept coming but they weren’t as severe. There were still outbreaks but herd immunity usually protected people. The horror was past and now it was about counting the kills, something we are still doing today. The estimated deaths are said to be around 50 million.

The Forgotten Plague

Chances are everyone has heard of this flu. It is mentioned in textbooks, the keyword here is “mentioned”. In my own, it encompasses a single sentence.

It was large enough to change most things and yet apparently not big enough to not be forgotten. Maybe the people forgot it because it was too painful, maybe the people at the time were just used to mass deaths.

The interesting thing is to see how the modern reaction to our new global pandemic is similar to the one a hundred years ago.

Despite us learning so many new things about the world of science, medicine, and technology we as humans haven’t really changed all that much.

Let's all hope that we can still learn from the history of the recent and the old and get through a new similar problem in the future.


Go to our new site