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The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918: A Nightmare Revisited

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

Deadliest Plague in Recorded History :1918

American Expeditionary Force victims of the Spanish flu at U.S. Army Camp Hospital influenza ward No. 1 in Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1918.

American Expeditionary Force victims of the Spanish flu at U.S. Army Camp Hospital influenza ward No. 1 in Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1918.

A Deadly Killer Emerges

The pandemic first emerged near the end of the First World War, before it was all over it would kill more people than four years of world war. When wartime censors suppressed bad news in the belligerent countries to maintain morale, newspapers outside those countries freely reported the outbreak. Those stories created a false impression of neutral Spain as the epicenter, so press outside Spain adopted the name "Spanish Flu". Limited historical epidemiological data made the pandemic's geographic origin indeterminate, with competing hypotheses on the initial spread.

The 1918 Spanish Flu was the first of three pandemics caused by the H1N virus. The violent symptoms of the influenza was unlike any known before. The blood that covered so many of those infected didn't come from wounds. Most of the blood had come from nosebleeds. A few of those sick would cough up blood. Others had bled from their ears. Some had coughed so hard that autopsies would later show they had torn apart adnominal muscles and rib cartilage.

Nearly all those able to communicate complained of headaches, as if someone were hammering a wedge into their skulls just behind the eyes, and body aches so intense they felt like bones breaking. Finally, the skin of some of the influenza's victims turned unusual colors, a few looked almost black. At autopsy their lungs had looked like of someone who had died from a poison gas or pneumonic plague, a more aggressive form of the bubonic plague.

We will never know with complete certainty where the 1918 influenza pandemic actually originated. Frank MacFarlane Burnet, a Nobel laureate who lived at the time of the pandemic and spent most of his life studying influenza, would conclude that the evidence strongly suggested that 1918 influenza pandemic began in the United States. He went even go further insisting its spread was "intimately related to war conditions and especially the arrival of American troops from France."

Especially ominous was the transfer to the United States of 1.5 million American soldiers home from France after the end of the First World War. No such migration has ever been made in such a short period of time. These young soldiers were the most perfectly qualified to cultivate the most insidiously virulent strain of influenza virus in history.

Spread

In 1918 an influenza virus emerged, most likely in the United States which would quickly spread around the world. Before the pandemic faded away in 1920, it would kill more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. Plague in the 1300s killed a far larger proportion of the population, more than one-quarter of Europe, but in raw numbers the influenza killed more people than the Black Death. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in forty years.

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the earliest great collision between nature and modern science. It was the first significant conflict between a natural force and a society which included individuals who refused to recognize the danger of infection to battle this force directly. Before the dawn of antibiotics those on the front lines would be helpless to control the spread of the influenza. The virus would spread like wildfire around the globe decimating entire communities.

Up until the early 1900s most physicians believed that illness was essentially the result of an imbalance in the body. They believed that the balance could only be restored by intervention. If there was a poison in the body, the the poison could be removed by evacuation. Sweating, urinating, defecating, and vomiting were all ways the balance could be restored. Bleeding was among the most common therapies employed to treat all manner of disorders. Despite the advances in medicine made between 1400 and 1800, doctors remained closer to medicine men than medical men.

Across the world hundreds of millions of people saw no doctor or nurse at all, but instead they tried every kind of folk medicine or fraudulent remedy available or imaginable. Others gargled with disinfectants, let frigid air sweep through their homes, or sealed windows shut and overheated rooms. Even the scientist used outlandish remedies, vaccines made out of horse blood to no benefit.

In the United States, the battle against the 1918 influenza pandemic was a remarkable story were a handful of exceptional people led the struggle to confront the virus, which included Paul Lewis who identified the agent that caused the flu, Pfeiffer's bacillus. In 1929, Lewis would die of yellow fever in Bahia, Brazil, while investigating the disease under the backing of the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board. A telegram reporting his death to the Foundation disclosed that Lewis most likely contracted yellow fever through a laboratory infection. He developed the fundamental science upon which much of today's medicine is based.

Terror Hits Mainstreet

The 1918 influenza was extremely uncommon it struck so suddenly that many of its victims could remember the exact moment they were infected, so quickly that across the world there were reports of people who fell off horses, or just collapsed on the sidewalk. Many perfectly healthy people died within twelve hours of getting sick. A characteristic of the influenza virus of 1918 that made it so dangerous and gave rise to epidemic after epidemic was its extreme mutability. Even thought the virus mutated toward mildness, it still killed efficiently in those whose immune systems had rarely or never been exposed to influenza.

Most scientist believe that viruses began as complex living cells and devolved into simpler organisms. Regardless their origin, a virus has only one function, to replicate itself. But unlike other lifeforms, a virus does not even do that itself. It invades a host's cells and then, it subverts them, takes them over, forces them to make thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, of new viruses. Only influenza A viruses cause epidemics or pandemics, an epidemic is a local outbreak, a pandemic a worldwide one.

Influenza viruses do not originate in humans. Their natural home is in birds, the virus infects their gastrointestinal tract. Bird droppings contain large amounts of virus, and infections virus can contaminate cold lakes and other water supplies, also trenches on a WWI battlefield. Most often virus goes through an intermediary mammal, especially swine, and then jump from swine to man.

Pandemics often come in waves, the 1918 influenza would circle the globe three times over two years before it began to subside. Even after that period of time it continued to take lives, but on a lesser scale as those previously infected had developed some immunity from the virus . H. G. Wells novel, "War of the World's," has been considered an attempt to compare the effect the1918 virus had on the human race and its ability to survive its assaults' on our immune systems.

War of the Worlds

A Martian fighting-machine battling with HMS Thunder Child. (Corrêa, 1906)

A Martian fighting-machine battling with HMS Thunder Child. (Corrêa, 1906)

The Marian invaders fall victim to an earth born virus saving mankind.

The Marian invaders fall victim to an earth born virus saving mankind.

Sources

Barry M. John. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story Of The Deadliest Plague in History. Penguin Random House 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014 US.2004

Crosby W. Alfred. America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. Cambridge University Press 32 Ave of the Americas, New York, New York, NY 10013. 1989

© 2021 Mark Caruthers

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 11, 2021:

It's terrible that such an epidemic/pandemic will kill so many people more than WW1, covid19 and others. Thanks.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on October 10, 2021:

This was very interesting. The Spanish Flu was a very scary pandemic, and COVID is also as concerning.

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