The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 -- a super-flu with deadly consequences -- killed somewhere between 20 and 40
million people, more people than the "Great War", known today as World War I
(WWI). It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded history.
Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe" the 1918 influenza virus created a
global disaster. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four
years of the "Black Death" -- Bubonic Plague -- from 1347 to 1351.
In the scant two years that this scourge desolated the earth, a fifth of
the world's population was infected. The flu was most deadly for people aged 20
The Spanish Flu actually originated in China or Tibet in 1917, as a rare
genetic shift of the influenza virus. A recombination of its surface proteins
created a virus novel to almost everyone, thus creating an influenza without
human immunity. Recently the virus has been reconstructed from the tissue of a
dead soldier; it is now being genetically characterized.
The name of Spanish Flu came from the early infections and large
mortalities in Spain, where it apparently killed 8 million in May 1918. However,
an initial wave of influenza appeared early in the spring of 1918 in Kansas
and in military camps throughout the U.S.
Before long cases were showing up in Europe. It changed its character when
it hit France, becoming malignant as it was contracted by African soldiers
who had been recruited into the French army.
After establishing a killing field in France, the flu moved into Spain--a
neutral player in WWI. For that reason Spain had no need to censor the illness
from its people in order to keep them focused on the war effort. The Spanish
press therefore fully documented the illness, along with its destructive
effects on the human body.
Running its course, the 1918 flu would affect a person in the following
(1) High fevers, shivers, coughs, muscular pain and sore throat
(2) Tiredness and dizzy spells
(3) Loss of strength to the point of not being able to eat or drink without
(4) Difficulty in breathing
The influenza epidemic quickly spread around the globe. In all, some 525
million people were infected by the virus, which caused about 21 million
deaths. That was more than twice the number of individuals who had been killed by
the Great War.
An unusual aspect of the 1918 flu virus was that, rather than behave like
normal strains of influenza--which especially attacks those with weak immunity
systems like the old, the infirm and the young--it tended to strike hardest
at the young and healthy members of society. As these were the people who were
responsible for the day-to-day organizational matters of people's lives, it
sometimes must have seemed that society itself was crumbling.
In America strains of religious fervor swept the landscape, with
"brimstone" preachers proclaiming such death was the sure hand of God smiting a sinful
nation. Many soon turned to folk remedies of various sorts to avert the
destruction that science at the time was simply unable to stop.
The Spanish Flu disappeared as quickly as it came, but only after killing
millions of people worldwide. Re-appearing in March 1919, the world was better
prepared, and the virus could be quarantined.
It infected 28% of all Americans, according to some estimates. Around
675,000 Americans died of influenza during the epidemic, ten times as many as in
the "Great War". Influenza killed an estimated 43,000 American troops mobilized
Half of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe fell to the virus rather than
the enemy, according to Deseret News.
As noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association edition
of December 1918: