Most years the flu is nothing more than an annoyance, killing only a small percentage of the population. One pandemic, the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, went on to become the most devastating in human history.
Despite the name, the virus did not originate in Spain. Spain was neutral in World War I. As a consequence, its newspapers were not censored, and reporters spoke openly about the disease’s spread.
The pandemic began in spring 1918 and ended in summer 1919. Most patients passed away from secondary infections, particularly pneumonia.
Death came quickly, often within days or even hours, as the lungs filled with fluid and suffocated the victim to death. The person’s skin would turn blue from lack of oxygen.
Makeshift hospitals were constructed in some areas to handle the influx of ill, but medical personnel soon became overwhelmed. Many doctors and nurses fell ill themselves.
The sheer number of ill and dead hampered society. In many industries, there weren’t enough workers to keep businesses running. Funeral homes, for example, were so understaffed they had difficulty finding enough people to help bury the dead.
Any place where large numbers of people congregated, such as cinemas, schools and churches, were closed in an effort to curtail the disease’s spread.
People were encouraged to wear masks, and public-service ads advised the best ways to avoid spreading the disease.
The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 was Different
Medical personnel quickly discovered that the 1918 pandemic was different from previous flu pandemics.
In addition to the high pneumonia rates, it differed in other ways as well.
- It killed mostly healthy, young people.
- The cause of death was often the body’s overreaction to the virus.
- Usually ill people stay home. On the Western and Eastern Fronts, it was healthy people who stayed put while the ill were transported to hospitals. This exposed others to the virus.
- The death toll was 20 percent. In a typical year, the flu kills less than one percent of those affected.
- Entire families were wiped out.
The deadliest month in the pandemic was October. In many communities, residents violated quarantine when they poured into the streets to celebrate Armistice the following month.
In that moment, joy overtook the fear of contagion.
Here are seven facts about the flu:
- The flu came in three waves. The first in the spring of 1918, the second in August and the third in autumn. The second two waves were more virulent than the first.
- Pregnant women had the highest death rate, up to 70 percent.
- People who contracted the flu during the 1890 pandemic were less affected by Spanish flu. Those who survived the first wave of Spanish flu also were immune to the second two waves.
- Every part of the globe was affected, even isolated islands.
- It is estimated up to 100 million people died globally. This makes the death toll higher than that of the war.
- It also killed more people than Black Death in the Middle Ages.
- It is believed stress and malnutrition caused by the war contributed to the death toll.
To learn more about the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, read my book A Tale of Two Nations: Canada, U.S. and WW1.
Updated: 20 October 2020