Also known as the 1918 flu pandemic, the Spanish flu was an extremely deadly influenza outbreak. It infected more than a third of the world’s population(!) and lasted over 2 years. The Spanish flu killed between 17 and 50 million people out of the estimated 500 million people it infected. With an estimated mortality rate of nearly 10%, it is considered one of the most dangerous flu strains to ever hit humanity. Below we break down what was the Spanish flu.
What is the flu?
The flu (influenza) is a respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus. The symptoms of this virus are wide-ranging and can cause things like fever, sore throat, muscle ache, headaches, cough, sneezing, and nasal congestion (full list at CDC website). Other respiratory viruses include COVID-19, Human Respiratory Syncytial Virus, SARS, MERS, and the common cold.
Although most flu patients can treat themselves at home, it’s always important to consult your doctor.
Why was it called the Spanish flu?
Because of the name, many people think this disease originated in Spain, but that’s not true. In World War I, most Allied and Central powers censored news relating to the virus in an effort to maintain high morale. The government assumed that if their troops found out, it would kill battlefield morale. In World War I, Spain was one of the few countries that remained neutral. Because of this, the Spanish media was free to openly report on the virus. After Spanish King Alfonso XIII got infected, media coverage for the Spanish flu really exploded.
Nations under the media blackout were only able to read accounts of the virus from Spanish news sources and therefore assumed that the virus had started in Spain. This lead to the name “Spanish flu”. Funny enough, the Spanish thought it originated in France and themselves called it the “French flu”.
What caused the Spanish flu?
Researchers have conducted numerous studies to determine the origin of the virus and have so far come up with nothing. China, France, Britan, Spain, and the United States have all been listed as possibilities.
Fighting the Spanish flu
When the virus hit the world, hospitals were so full that schools, homes and other buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals to combat the disease. A large number of healthcare workers were also overseas fighting in the war, which greatly reduced the nation’s ability to combat the disease. Numerous areas around the world put quarantine rules into effect and people were ordered to stay home.
Just when the healthcare workers seemed to be winning, soldiers returned home from war and created a second wave of infection which again spread through the population. Around the summer of 1919, the Spanish flu pandemic came to a close. Most of those that had become infected had died or gained immunity to the virus. Thankfully today we have flu vaccines and antivirals which can help treat the flu. So, make sure you get your flu shots every year!
Why was it so dangerous?
In 2008, researchers discovered what made the Spanish flu so dangerous. The virus had a group of three genes that weakened the bronchial tubes of patients and allowed additional bacteria and diseases to enter the lungs. These additional threats increased the severity of the disease and placed additional stress on the immune system.