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SPANISH FLU: A LOOK BACK AT THE FIRST TRULY GLOBAL PANDEMIC

Updated: May 11

What relevance does the Spanish Flu have for us today? What have we learnt? What have we yet to learn?

The Spanish Flu was the modern world's first truly global pandemic. It lasted for around two years, infecting around 500 million people and resulted in the deaths of at least 17 million.


After the horrors of the First World War had shaken the foundations of society, the Spanish Flu was a devastating secondary blow to civilisation. It is believed the 1918 Influenza Pandemic was given the name "Spanish Flu" as a result of wartime censorship, as though the flu did not originate in Spain, the newspapers in belligerent countries were not allowed to report on the flu in order to keep the morale at home high. Spain however, was neutral in WW1, and when the Spanish king contracted the flu, this gave the disease major worldwide publicity.


Fast Facts:


1) Spanish Flu is a variation of H1N1, which gave us the Swine Flu


2) Most influenza viruses hit the oldest and the youngest populations hardest, but Spanish Flu claimed a disproportionate number of young adult victims.


One of the leading theories for why Spanish Flu was so deadly & widespread is due to the conditions of the First World War. Men led a destitute and filthy existence in the trenches, and conditions in frontline hospitals were often little better, meaning soldiers who were often cramped together on the line could be almost as tightly packed in a field hospital. Additionally, as so many countries were involved in the war, the potential for transmission between various groups was enhanced. Finally, as the war came to a close and soldiers started heading home, many might have carried the disease to the cities & towns from whence they came.


Two British soldiers wade through a waterlogged communication trench on the Western Front. From Wikimedia C.

Impact


While the Spanish Flu lasted for about two years, the majority of deaths & cases were confined to the fall of 1918. Where as the seasonal flu kills about 0.1% of those infected, the death rate for Spanish Flu was much higher, around an estimated 10-20%. One of the most interesting things about this pandemic, in light of what is currently happening with COVID-19, is how much we still don't know about how it happened, how it spread, and why certain groups were more affected than others. It's interesting to think that for everything we have achieved as a society, there is still much to be discovered, and at the end of the day, the world is simply dangerous; human history after all is just one long story of survival!


Whilst the impact of the Spanish Flu was of course much bigger than the seasonal flu, we have to take into account a couple of things:


1) There was a war on

Some have termed Spanish Flu as "the forgotten pandemic", in reality I think most pandemics are forgotten, as we as humans tend to focus mostly on the present (after all, that's part of our survival instinct), but in light of the events circulating around 1918, it is actually rather easy to see why the Spanish Flu came like a thief in the night, and left just as quickly.


When WW1 began, many young men were rushing to enlist as it was widely believed that war would be over by Christmas of 1914. Many were concerned they might not get the chance to do their bit. After 4 years of gruelling modern warfare, and over an estimated 20 million deaths, three months of Spanish Flu seemed shortly over, and sadly, the many young lives lost may have been somewhat lumped in with the casualties of war by the general population.


2) In 1918, disease was a part of life

Those of us now living in the 21st century can have a difficult time realising just how good we really have it. In the last century, so many diseases that once crippled the lives of our ancestors have been eradicated it is astounding. Polio, which once saw victims confined to an Iron Lung for hours every day now has a preventative vaccine, diabetes can be mitigated with insulin injections, and the abundance of good medicine now available the world over renders most fevers a mere inconvenience.


Photo of an Iron Lung Ward c.1940s from the LA Times

In 1918 however, influenza wasn't the only thing going around. Cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid were all widely circulated, with cholera recording fierce outbreaks in the 1850s, 70s, & 90s. While medicine was advancing by leaps & bounds, sickness and disease still played a big role in the lives of everyone at the start of the 20th century. People lived their lives regardless, and in the meantime, economies flourished, and technological innovation skyrocketed, but life was never sure, and even those who could afford good medicine could not take their health for granted.



Fighting the Flu


While a lot was still being discovered in the 1910's about how diseases spread, a lot had been learned as well. Masks were widely advertised as helping to contain the spread of influenza, and in some cases, mask wearing was enforced. This photograph from Seattle in 1918 shows the conductor refusing to allow passengers on board without masks:



A Government of Alberta poster also encouraged homemade mask making to prevent the spread:


Despite efforts to contain the disease however, sanitation practices of the early 20th century vastly differed from our own, and the flu spread quickly.



Similarities


While life is a lot different 100 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic, it is incredible how much in common we suddenly have with our ancestors amidst the current COVID-19 outbreak. Just as they are now, in 1918 stores everywhere began to temporarily close up shop as the flu became so widespread.


The Spanish Flu, like COVID-19 was highly contagious, spreading at such a rate that was not only difficult to contain, but hard to track. Additionally, the 20th century like no era before it, witnessed rapid growth in global communication & travel which suddenly made the world much smaller. This expedited the spread of the disease. In the same way, today, technological innovation has brought the world to our doorstep, and in a physical sense, it has never been easier or faster to go from one corner of the globe to another. Hence the unprecedented speed at which COVID-19 went from being a Chinese epidemic to a global pandemic.



What have we learned?


So, how much really has changed in 100 years? Well, obviously technology has enabled us to get a grasp on the scale and effects of COVID-19 very quickly, as well as giving governments the ability to disseminate information to the general public faster than ever. Without the internet, self-isolation and the containment of the disease would have been much slower. Additionally, we've learnt to consistently wash our hands, cover our mouths when coughing or sneezing, and overall have more access to hygienic products which can help us stop viruses dead in their tracks. Overall, the situation is much better than it was in 1918, and we should count ourselves blessed.


There is one more thing however that I think we can learn from the Spanish Flu, and that is, that no matter the disease, illness, or plague, life carries on. Tomorrow the sun will come up again, and though many of us may suffer, many of us will recover too, and human life will continue. The world is still a beautiful place, and we have survived a lot so far, us humans. So, we will continue to learn, to adapt, and hopefully, to be thankful.




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