What was Spanish Flu? Which Infected One Third Of Worlds Population

Right now our world is fighting coronavirus pandemic. Every country is under lockdown. Public life, social life is completely under the shutdown. 90% of world children, students are not going to schools for the first time in history. But this not the first time world has faced such an enemy in the form of a pandemic. A century ago around 1918-1920 world faced off with the same enemy named Spanish Flu. At that time world was not connected like today so the information about the pandemic was not readily available to the people, even people didn’t know about the pandemic during the whole time.  But now its different time everyone knows what’s going on across the globe the point it happens. And everyone is scared of what the future holds for us. But we need to know the world faced this type of enemy before a century ago and we overcome that enemy and this time also we will overcome that enemy. Here we are going to discuss the Spanish Flu which wreaked havoc across the continents to infect one-third of the world’s population at that time. Find more interesting topics from History

Spanish flu in the US
During the pandemic in 1918 Seattle Police in the US covering their mouth with a mask. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

What was the Spanish Flu?

The most serious pandemic in modern times was the influenza pandemic of 1918 also known as the Spanish Flu. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with avian-derived genes. Though there is no universal consensus as to where the virus originated, during 1918-1919 it spread worldwide. From January 1918 to December 1920, 500 million people were infected – around one-third of the world’s population at the time. The number of deaths is believed to have been between 17 million and 50 million, and probably as high as 100 million, rendering it one of the worst disease outbreaks in human history. The mortality rate of influenza was very high. Normally people between ages 20 – 40 are less affected during an influenza outbreak but this time it was different. Young adults between children and older people were severely affected. The main reason behind the high mortality rate is disputed, but here are two most prominent theories-

  • First theory, the virus is particularly deadly because it causes a cytokine storm that devastates young adults’ higher metabolism
  • Further recent work has found that the viral outbreak was no more severe than prior forms of influenza. Rather, the bacterial superinfection was encouraged by malnutrition, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and bad sanitation.
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Origin and the Name of the Pandemic

The name ‘Spanish Flu’ may suggest it had originated in Spain but that’s not the case. The origin of the virus is disputed till today. One research said that the virus may have originated in the United States, Kansas. But many others do not believe this. Some say it has originated somewhere in North America. At that time World War I was going on therefore many countries don’t want their peoples’ mainly soldiers to belive the pandemic. There were censorsed minimized early reports of illness and mortality on the pandemic. Spain was not involved in the war therefore there was no media gag. Spanish media reported the flu freely and depicted the pandemic’s original image. This might be one reason the flu was named ‘Spanish Flu’. Or some said it spread from Spain to France.

Nearly 100 years later, WHO urged scientists, public officials and the media to adopt best practices in identifying emerging human infectious diseases so as to reduce needless adverse impacts for countries, communities, and citizens. More common terms for this outbreak now used are “1918 flu pandemic” or “1918 influenza pandemic”.

How Virus Spread

  • Virus Spread when infected individuals sneeze or cough, over half a million particles of the virus will disperse to anyone nearby.
  • World War I’s close quarters and rapid troop movements hastened the pandemic and increased transmission. This might have boosted the virus’ killing power, too.
  • Some believe that the immune systems of the soldiers have been compromised by starvation, as well as the pressures of war and chemical attacks which have increased their vulnerability.
  • Another factor in this flu’s emergence worldwide has been increased travel. New means of faster travel also helped spreading the disease by soldiers, sailors and civilian travelers.
  • Another reason was official deception and denials, making the populace unable to cope with the diseases.
Spanish flu in Kansas
A hospital during the epidemic in Kansas. Source: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine / Public domain

Lethality and Fact’s about the Spanish Flu

  • Nearly 500 million people were infected by the virus.
  • Nearly 50 million were killed across the globe but there is a certain dispute on the total number of deaths caused by the flu.
  • Young adult peoples were among the most affected.
  • In Brazil, nearly 300,000 died, including then president of Brazil Rodrigues Alves.
  • In the United States, 500,000 to 850,000 died out of 105 million infected people.
  • In India, about 12-17 million people died, approximately 5 percent of the population. But numbers vary with different sources.
  • In Ghana, at least 100,000 people have died from the outbreak.
  • 23 million people in Japan have been affected, with deaths registered at least 390,000.
  • China was among the least affected countries.
  • Russia lost about 0.4 percent of its population, which means it experienced Europe’s lowest influenza-related mortality rate but sources vary.
  • As the virus had been totally unknown to the world. Many used different methods to manage the disease that worked against the intention and helped to increase mortality. One of them was aspirin poisoning which significantly contributed to the deaths.
  • The pandemic of 1918’s second wave was even more devastating than the first. The first outbreak showed parallels to traditional flu epidemics. The ill and the aged were the most at risk while the younger, healthy people quickly recovered.
  • Around the time the second wave started in August 1918 the virus had evolved into a much more lethal form. October 1918 was the month with the highest incidence of fatality in the entire pandemic.
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How the Spanish Flu ended?

Still, there is no specific reason, how the Spanish Flu cease to existence after creating so much destruction but there are two popular theories:

  • When the devastating second wave arrived in late 1918, after the peak in the second wave, new cases plummeted suddenly to almost nothing. Some believe the dramatic reduction in the disease’s lethality is that doctors have become more effective in preventing and treating pneumonia.
  • Some suggest that the 1918 virus evolved into a less deadly form very quickly. It is a normal phenomenon with influenza viruses as pathogenic viruses tend to become less deadly over time, while more aggressive strains begin to die out in hosts.

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