Spanish Flu is the term adopted to indicate the universal pandemic that spread between the 1918 and the 1920. Although it is not as popular as the “Black Death” from the Middle Ages, the Spanish flu provoked a number of dead ever seen before.

50 – 100 millions of people died in approximately a year

The death rate destroyed between 3 and  5% of the worldwide population, with an unusual high rate of death for young people between 25 and 34 years old.

Below: two women talk with each other through their antiflu masks during the pandemic

Below, a diagram showing the death rate amongst the different ages in the pandemic of the 1918 and the previous ones. In the ordinates it is shown the death per 100,000 people in any group age for the pandemic from the 1911 to the 1917 (dotted line) and the one from the 1918 (solid line). In the abscissa they display the age of death.

The unusual peak of death for intermediate age range does not have a certain scientific explanation. One of the hypothesis states that the older people, from 40 up to 65 years old, could have benefited from the immune system developed during the Russian flu in 1889-1890 so they resulted as less vulnerable. A second explanation non discordant with the first one, demonstrated that the virus was triggering a storm of cytokine from a stronger immune system, and this was leading to the death of the patient. Young people (5 to 14 years old) and adults (40 to 65) were then the least susceptible slot to this excessive production of cytokine.

Below: on the left a nurse in the field hospital go and collect some water. On the right a typist from New York works while wearing a mask

The biggest historical concause which led to a similar rate of death was WWI, which saw millions of soldiers still to the front who were infecting each other in that which was a war of position.

The war and a particularly lethal virus caused the death of a number of human beings ever seen before

Below: a man prepare a spray anti-flu for the busses of the General Omnibus Co. of London (2nd of March 1920)

Amongst all the hundreds of millions of infected people (about 500 millions), Spain saw most of their victims in the pregnant women, with a death rate ranging from 23 to 71%.

How were people dying of Spanish flu?

The symptoms were ghastly, the patients would register fever and respiratory distress. The lack of oxygen would turn the faces of the infected ones into blue-ish tones, while a hemorrhage was filling up their lungs causing continuous vomit and bleeding nose, with the victims dying suffocated by their own fluids. Furthermore the flu would promote pneumonia, which often was the cause of death due to the already weakened body.

Below: on the left, a tram driver of Seattle, Washington, rejecting the entrance of a commuter who doesn’t want to wear a mask, precaution required by the city. On the right, a street cleaner of New York with a mask on

Why “Spanish”?

The term “Spanish” must not deceive you. The pandemic was not originated in Spain, let alone that was the state which was hit the heaviest. The name is a direct consequence of the IWW. Spain was in fact one of the few countries involved in the conflict, and the journals could talk about the facts happening without censorship.  For this reason the Spanish publishers were for a long time the only one talking about the Pandemic unlike Germany, UK, France, US, Italy and Austria. Amongst the infected people there was also  Alfonso XIII, king of Spain, which turned the flu topic popular.

The first official cases in 1918 were registered in Camp Funston, training camp of the US army in Kansas, where the department of flu emergency was holding their patients.

Was the Spanish Flu the biggest Pandemic of all history?

If in terms of absolute value the death rate was the highest compared to any other pandemic, in the article of  Atlantic from the 2016, they indicate two other pandemic as the worst in history:

“The Black Death of the 1340s felled more than 10 percent of the world population. Eight centuries prior, another epidemic of the Yersinia pestis bacterium—the “Great Plague of Justinian” in 541 and 542—killed between 25 and 33 million people, or between 13 and 17 percent of the global population at that time”

Below: two patients wearing an anti-flu nozzle in 1919

Especially the Plague of the 14th century, during an epidemic hitting in more waves, killed between 75 and 200 millions of people. Although it killed less people during a shorter time (the Spanish flu killed between 50 and 100 millions of people in a little more that a year), the consequences of the infection were certainly more serious of those caused at the beginning of the 20th century.

Below: the police officers of Seattle wearing protective gas masks during the epidemic in 1918

Below: some baseball players non identified with the masks on, 1918

Beloe: on the left: a Red Cross nurse with the mask, 1918. On the right an American police officer with a mask

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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