By Kimberly Ison
Ahh, the flu, we’ve all had it before. That feeling of just wanting to crawl in your bed and die because you feel so bad. Well if you happened to live in most parts of the world 1918, you just may have. In the fall of 1918, World War I (aka the Great War, like seriously? Great War?) was winding down and it looked as if peace were on the horizon.
Ten times as many Americans died of the flu than perished in WWI.
Throughout the war, the men lived in brutal conditions in trenches. One might think that this was their lowest point, but life likes to kick us when we’re down sometimes. Suddenly in pockets across the globe something began to erupt. A la The Spanish Flu (The virus we can thank for getting rid of Lavinia on Downton Abbey). Though it seemed as harmless as the common cold, the reality was much, much worse.
Why is called the Spanish Flu?
Ok so how and why did Spain give everyone the flu? They didn’t. The reality is that Spain was a neutral country in WWI and was therefore allowed to openly report happenings of the war. The Spanish media was free to report every gory detail. News of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918, and coverage only increased after the Spanish King Alfonso XIII came down with a nasty case a week later. Since nations undergoing a media blackout could only read in depth accounts from Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed that the country was the pandemic’s ground zero.
The virus infected as much as 40% of the global population with young people between the ages of 20-40 being more susceptible. An estimated 20 to 50 million people died. Ten times as many Americans died of the flu than perished in WWI. Of the soldiers that did die during the war, over half were from the flu. The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years. The influenza pandemic circled the globe.
Most of humanity felt the effects of this strain of the influenza virus. It spread following the path of its human carriers, along trade routes and shipping lines. Outbreaks swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific.
The end of the pandemic
By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity. Almost 90 years later, in 2008, researchers announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia. There have been several other flu outbreaks since, but none as deadly.