History with Phil: Spanish flu pandemic was deadliest in history

History with Phil: Spanish flu pandemic was deadliest in history

Phil Connelly

Phil Connelly

With more than 41,000 people infected and over 1,000 confirmed deaths, the Coronavirus has spread from Hubei Province in China to countries around the world. So far, there have been only 14 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States.

While this latest virus has caused panic in some places, to date, it has been far less prolific and deadly than another pandemics that gripped the world a little over a century ago.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 was the deadliest in history, having infected an estimated 500 million people around the world (about 30% of the planet’s population at that time), and killing an estimated 20 to 100 million victims, including around 675,000 Americans (exact numbers are unknown due to poor record keeping).

The first wave of the 1918 flu occurred in the spring and was fairly mild. Those infected experienced typical flu symptoms and usually recovered in several days; the death rate was low.

At that point, officials were relieved that the Spanish flu didn’t appear to be all that different from “ordinary” flu. However by the fall of 1918, a second more contagious and deadly wave of influenza suddenly appeared. Many of those infected died within hours or days of developing symptoms. Their skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid, suffocating the victim. The flu was so deadly that in a single year, the average life expectancy in America dropped by 12 years.

It quickly became known around the world as the Spanish flu. To maintain morale during World War 1, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in France, Germany, Britain and the United States. However in neutral Spain, newspapers were free to report the epidemic's effects. Because of this quirk in reporting, a false impression emerged that the pandemic had originated in Spain. The actual origin of the flu is unknown, although it is thought to have originated in China due to a genetic shift of the influenza virus.

More U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed during the war. In fact, the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than died in World War I. To understand the severity of this pandemic, more people died in a single year than during the dreaded Bubonic Plague of 1346-1350.

The Spanish flu could not have come at a worse time. With the world at war, there was a shortage of doctors and nurses who had been pressed into military service. In addition to the lack of health care workers and medical supplies, there was a shortage of morticians, coffins and gravediggers.

Then as now, officials imposed quarantines, ordered citizens to wear masks, advised against shaking hands, and closed theaters, schools and churches. Funerals were limited to just 15 minutes. Some towns required a signed health certificate before allowing a person to enter.

A severe fine was levied against anyone who ignored various flu ordinances. In many cities, spitting in public was prohibited. This is where the Boy Scouts got involved. Whenever they observed someone spitting on the street, they handed out a card that read: “You are in violation of the Sanitary Code.”

Nearly as quickly as it appeared, it was over. By the summer of 1919, infected people had either died or developed immunity. The pandemic’s death rate was 2.5%, very close to that of today’s Coronavirus.

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Related to this story

The history of Missoula begins 12,000 years ago with the end of the region's glacial lake period. The Salish Tribe was the first to inhabit the Missoula area. The tribe’s first encounter with whites came in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the valley.

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