The Spanish Influenza: A Deadly Affair

Updated on February 28, 2020
harrynielsen profile image

Science has always fascinated me. This includes not only the ecological sciences, which I studied in school, but other endeavors, as well.

Removing a Flu Victim

Not surprisingly many medical workers, who cared for the victims of the Spanish Flu, also became ill and sometimes died.
Not surprisingly many medical workers, who cared for the victims of the Spanish Flu, also became ill and sometimes died. | Source

A World Changing Event

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.
-- Children's Skipping Rhyme, 1918

Years ago, as WWI was coming to an end, a deadly disease, swept the world, eventually killing more people than the "Great War". By this time in history, scientists had some understanding of contagious diseases and the minute microbes that caused them, but nonetheless it would take another fifteen years along with the invention of the electron microscope (1931) before the true nature of a virus would be better understood and then connected to the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and 1919.

What Really Happened?

First of all, the name, Spanish Flu, developed not because the flu originated in Spain, but because this Southern European nation was so hard hit by the outbreak. Even the king of Spain, King Alfonso XIII, came down with the flu, as did Woodrow Wilson the president of the United States. Eventually, the King of Spain survived (as did Wilson), but nonetheless the Spanish name stuck.

Overall, as many as 500 million (1/3 of the world's population) were infected with the bug. Of these, approximately 50 million passed on with some estimates going as high as 100 million. In the United States, it is estimated that about 675,000 died. The flu occurred in almost every part of the world. Moreover, it came in three waves with the second wave, being the most deadly. The second wave made its mark in the fall of 1918, just as WWI was coming to an end.

Sign of the Times 1918

In 1918 public health awareness was limited.
In 1918 public health awareness was limited. | Source

Freedom of the Press in Neutral Spain

Another possible reason to why the 1918 epidemic went on to be called the Spanish Flu, resides in the fact that during WWI, Spain was a neutral country. Therefore, the government was not at war and did not practice any censorship of the press. As a result, Spanish newspapers were free to reveal all the gory details as to what the disease was doing to that nation.

Edvard Munch's Depressing Self-Portrait

Edvard Munch did this eerie self-portrait in 1918 while undergoing the effects of the Spanish Influenza. Fortunately, he survived the disease.
Edvard Munch did this eerie self-portrait in 1918 while undergoing the effects of the Spanish Influenza. Fortunately, he survived the disease.

How Did the Flu Begin?

Tracing the beginning of a flu epidemic that occurred just over a hundred years ago is difficult to say the least. Even today with much advanced scientific technique at our disposal, there is still some uncertainity in pinpointing the place of origin. Keeping this in mind, many contemporary researchers believe that the flu began in the American Midwest, possibly Kansas. American soldiers waiting to deploy to the battlefront in Europe were the first to come down with the disease, so it is not hard to see how the influenza would have quickly spread to Europe and then around the world.

The Cause of It All

In 1918, viruses were yet to be discovered. This re-creation of the Spanish Flu virus was done much later and then recorded by an electron microscope.
In 1918, viruses were yet to be discovered. This re-creation of the Spanish Flu virus was done much later and then recorded by an electron microscope. | Source

Scientific Background

Most likely, the Spanish flu virus began in domestic poultry as a disease that affected the respiratory system and was often fatal to the bird. By some process, not completely understood by scientists, the virus then finds its way into a human and quickly evolves into an organism that can live in the human body and then be passed from human to human.

Today, the Spanish flu virus is labeled H1N1 with H1 and N1 being shorthand for two different type of antigens that are produced by the body after viral infection. Though this virus started among birds, it evolved into something very similar to the Swine Flu virus. In 2009, the Swine Flu became pandemic and infected somewhere around a billion people with fatalities estimated at 500,000. Because the world population was much greater in 2009, this is actually a lower percentage death rate than the deadly Spanish Flu.

Soldiers Afflicted with the Spanish Flu

Soldiers afflicted with the Spanish Flu were housed in makeshift hospitals, like the one pictured here at  Camp Funston, Kansas.
Soldiers afflicted with the Spanish Flu were housed in makeshift hospitals, like the one pictured here at Camp Funston, Kansas.

The Spanish Flu and the Military

By many estimates, the Spanish Flu killed more soldiers than actual warfare did. If one looks at the number of military personnel that perished in the "War To End All Wars", the death toll is staggering.. According to the History Channel, forty percent of the Navy and 36% of the U.S. Army were taken ill with this type of flu. Even with a death rate of ten to twenty percent, this adds up to quite a lot of soldiers, meeting their demise by disease rather than ammunition.

On a further note, the vast movements of armies and the housing of war participants in large groups may have greatly aided the spread of this horrific disease.

The Monkey As a Guinea Pig

Macaque monkeys are often used in medical experiments because their nervous system closely resembles that of humans.
Macaque monkeys are often used in medical experiments because their nervous system closely resembles that of humans. | Source

Why the Flu Was So Deadly

In 2005, medical scientist recreated the Spanish Flu virus from frozen samples and then infected a group of macaque monkeys, in order to study how the disease progressed. Much to the surprise of those conducting the experiment, the primates succumbed quickly to the malaise and had to be euthanized.

Upon further examination, the scientist learned more about how the deadly virus worked and why young people in prime health were the primary victims during the 1918 outbreak.. What they observed is that when the virus attacked the human body, it caused the immune system to go into overdrive, producing large amounts of anti-toxins and antibodies. As a result, the lungs of the victims filled with fluids, often suffocating the patient in the process..

In Seattle

In 1918, the Seattle police force was required to wear surgical masks.
In 1918, the Seattle police force was required to wear surgical masks. | Source

What Can Be learned from the 1918 Flu Outbreak?

What is most striking about the Spanish Flu pandemic is that the microscopic virus killed more people than armed conflict in the trenches of Europe. Now a hundred later and despite a host of technological advances in both both medicine and warfare, we still live in a world that is at risk from either element. To compound matters the world's population has grown substantially. Instead, of a billion and a half residents, the planet supports nearly 8 billion homo sapiens.

Undoubtedly, the 1918 epidemic is the worst medical malaise in recorded history. Medical advancements in the last hundred years have occurred at breakneck speed, yet the world still lives in mortal fear of another Flu outbreak that could rival the one in 1918 and 1919. Recent events in China (February 2020), most certainly bear this out, confirming the idea that in the 21st century biological disasters may be more real than military conflict.

And as far as the war on microbes goes, we have a ways to go to curtail these deadly organisms. Despite our increased understanding of micro-organisms, our improved immunization techniques and our increased knowledge on disease transmission, the general population is always at risk, whenever another deadly biological agent comes around.

Looking Back at the Spanish Flu

Sources

http://www.planetwavesweekly.com/parallel/articles/little_bird.html

https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/1918-flu-pandemic

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/16670768/ns/health-cold_and_flu/t/new-tests-reveal-why-flu-was-so-deadly/


© 2020 Harry Nielsen

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