The influenza (“flu”) pandemic of 1918-1919 was brutal. In two years it infected 500 million people around the globe (roughly a third of the world’s population) and at least 50 million people died. This was more than twice the number of people who died in the four years of World War I.
The war itself helped created the ideal conditions for the global spread of disease:
- Millions of troops from many different countries crammed into trenches
- Sick and wounded soldiers concentrated in field stations and hospitals
- A transient population of soldiers and labourers moving in and out of training camps and depots
- Soldiers mingling with civilians when on leave
- And then, at war’s end, everyone returning home
The map below is from an interesting article on how the flu pandemic affected Africa. It shows a first wave (black) and a second wave (red) of spread.
When things went pear shaped…
Clinical signs of the first wave of the flu were seen in March in Kansas, USA. By April it had reached France, was in England in June and infecting Germany by July. The disease it caused in the first half of 1918 was relatively mild: a few days of fever, cough, fatigue, and a runny nose. But soldiers got better quickly.
However, some time in August of 1918, the virus mutated. Disease became more severe: very high fever, shivering, muscle ache, and secondary bacterial bronchopneumonia. Roughly 12,000 Australian soldiers on the Western Front were admitted to hospital in late 1918.
This new strain of flu had a high mortality, and was unusually severe in adults 20-40 years of age. It spread through Africa, Europe, the Americas and reached Australia by 1919. About a third of all Australians were infected and nearly 15,000 people died (an interesting perspective on the flu pandemic in Australia is available here).
Why was it called the Spanish Flu?
Initially, information about the severity of the pandemic was suppressed, as news agencies were barred from writing about this global health threat (the combatant countries didn’t want to let on to the enemy!). Because Spain was a neutral party in the war, their newspapers were able to report on the devastating effects seen in Spain and many people mistakingly believed it had begun there.
What similarities are there between then and now?
COVID-19 is the first pandemic (most!) of us have experienced, but many of the responses have been the similar:
- Quarantine. Not in hotels but on boats! Many returning troopships had to sit for 7 days (or more) of quarantine in Australian ports before the soldiers could be cleared for disembarkation. Just as the case is now quarantine was a source of much frustration, as the soldiers and their families had been apart for so many years.
- Improved personal hygiene. With COVID-19 there has been an increased focus on washing hands and covering coughs. Likewise with the flu, there was a focus on covering coughs and sneezes…and a ban on spitting (!)
- Masks. Many governments ordered people to wear masks. Famed illustrator/author May Gibbs even did artwork for advertising posters (see the header for this post).
- Social distancing. Efforts were made to reduce crowds and contact between people, such as promoting bicycle use rather than public transport. Public events were cancelled (such as the Royal Easter Show), there was even a ban on lending books!