A separate, but related event to the Great War, was the great 1918 flu pandemic. This deadly flu virus attacked more than one-third of the world's population, and within months had killed more than 50 million people – three times as many as the World War I – and did it more quickly than any other illness in recorded history. Unlike other flu outbreaks which happen every year and vary in severity, this particularly flu virus attacked young, healthy adults, aged between 20-40. There was no cure, no vacine and little support that medicine could provide.
The origins of this virulent new strain of the flu are still unknown. It was first observed in Fort Riley, Kansas, USA, and is believed to have been accidentally carried to Europe by infected American forces personnel. One in every four Americans had contracted the influenza virus. The disease spread rapidly through the continental US, Canada and Europe. It eventually reached around the globe, partially because many were weakened and exhausted by the famines of the World War.
It was nicknamed ‘Spanish flu’ as the first reported cases were in Spain. Newspapers during World War One, were censored, (Germany, the United States, Britain and France all had media blackouts on news that might lower morale) so although there were influenza (flu) cases elsewhere, it was the Spanish cases that hit the headlines. In Spain some 8 million people infected in May 1918 and one of the first casualties was the King of Spain. In Spain they called in 'French Flu'.
In three waves the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and killed 50 to 100 million of them. This was three to five percent of the world's population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. This particular virulent strain of flu was unusual, as it was most deadly for those between the ages of 20 to 35, making war veterans among the most susceptible. It was distinct in that it had a rapid onset and it was not unusual for victims to die within hours. Another oddity was that the influenza appeared most deadly during the Summer months of the Northern Hemisphere, rather than the Winter.
The Spanish Flu Becomes Incredibly Deadly. While the first wave of the Spanish flu had been extremely contagious, the second wave of the Spanish flu was both contagious and exceedingly deadly. In late August 1918, the second wave of the Spanish flu struck three port cities at nearly the same time. These cities (Boston, United States; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone) all felt the lethalness of this new mutation immediately.
Hospitals quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of patients. When hospitals filled up, tent hospitals were erected on lawns. Nurses and doctors were already in short supply because so many of them had gone to Europe to help with the war effort. Desperately needing help, hospitals asked for volunteers. Knowing they were risking their own lives by helping these contagious victims, many people, especially women, signed up anyway to help as best they could.
The Symptoms of the Spanish Flu.
The victims of the 1918 Spanish flu suffered greatly. Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of extreme fatigue, fever, and headache, victims would start turning blue. Sometimes the blue color became so pronounced that it was difficult to determine a patient's original skin color. The patients would cough with such force that some even tore their abdominal muscles. Foamy blood exited from their mouths and noses. A few bled from their ears. Some vomited; others became incontinent. They would drown in their own blood, struggle for breath and suffocate. The Spanish flu struck so suddenly and severely that many of its victims died within hours of coming down with their first symptom. Some died a day or two after realizing they were sick.
Not surprisingly, the severity of the Spanish flu was alarming. People around the world worried about getting it. Some cities ordered everyone to wear masks. Spitting and coughing in public was prohibited. Schools and theaters were closed.
People also tried their own homemade prevention remedies, such as eating raw onions, keeping a potato in their pocket, or wearing a bag of camphor around their neck. None of these things stemmed the onslaught of the Spanish flu's deadly second wave.
Piles of Dead Bodies
The number of bodies from the victims of the Spanish flu quickly outnumbered the available resources to deal with them. Morgues were forced to stack bodies like cordwood in the corridors. There were not enough coffins for all the bodies, nor were there enough people to dig individual graves. In many places, mass graves were dug to free the towns and cities of the masses of rotting corpses.
Armistice Brings Third Wave of the Spanish Flu
On November 11, 1918, an armistice brought an end to World War I. People around the world celebrated the end of this "total war" and felt jubilant that perhaps they were free from the deaths caused by both war and flu. However, as people hit the streets, gave kisses and hugs to returning soldiers, they also started a third wave of the Spanish flu. The third wave of the Spanish flu was not as deadly as the second wave, but still deadlier than the first. Although this third wave also went around the world, killing many of its victims, it received much less attention. People were ready to start their lives over again after the war; they were no longer interested in hearing about or fearing a deadly flu.
The Death Toll
The global mortality rate from the 1918/1919 pandemic is not known, but an estimated 10% to 20% of those who were infected died. With about a third of the world population infected, this case-fatality ratio means 3% to 6% of the entire global population died. Influenza may have killed as many as 25 million people in its first 25 weeks. Older estimates say it killed 40–50 million people, while current estimates say 50–100 million people worldwide were killed. The disease killed in every corner of the globe. The country that suffered most was India. The first cases appeared in Bombay in June 1918. The following month deaths were being reported in Karachi and Madras. With large numbers of India's doctors serving with the British Army, the country was unable to cope with the epidemic. As many as 17 million died in India, about 5% of the population. In Japan, 23 million people were affected, and 390,000 died. In the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), 1.5 million were assumed to have died from 30 million inhabitants. In Tahiti, 14% of the population died during only two months. Similarly, in Samoa in November 1918, 20% of the population of 38,000 died within two months. In the United States, about 28% of the population suffered, and 500,000 to 675,000 died. Native American tribes were particularly hard hit. Entire villages perished in Alaska. In Canada 50,000 died. In Brazil 300,000 died, including president Rodrigues Alves. In Britain, as many as 250,000 died; in France and Germany more than 400,000. In West Africa, an influenza epidemic killed at least 100,000 people in Ghana. In British Somaliland one official estimated that 7% of the native population died. In Britain, some 200,000 died of influenza between 1918-1919.
Gone but Not Forgotten
The third wave lingered. Some say it ended in the spring of 1919 while others believe it continued to claim victims through 1920. Eventually, however, this deadly strain of the flu disappeared. More people died of influenza in that single year than in the four years of the 'Black Death' Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. By the end of pandemic, only one region in the entire world had not reported an outbreak: an isolated island called Marajo, located in Brazil's Amazon River Delta.
To this day, no one knows why the flu virus suddenly mutated into such a deadly form or why it ended so suddenly. Nor do they know how to prevent it from happening again. Scientists and researchers continue to research and learn about the 1918 Spanish flu in the hopes of being able to prevent another worldwide pandemic of the flu.