Spanish Flu: Why It Was The Deadliest Epidemic of the Century


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In 1918, an influenza virus called the Spanish flu caused a worldwide pandemic, which spread rapidly and killed indiscriminately. The young, the elderly, the sick, and other healthy people were infected, and at least 10% of patients died.

Estimates of the exact number of deaths caused by the disease vary, but it is believed to have infected a third of the world's population and killed at least 50 million people, making it the deadliest epidemic in the modern history. 

Although it was nicknamed the "Spanish flu" at the time, it is unlikely that the virus originated in Spain.

What caused the Spanish flu?

The outbreak began in 1918, in the closing months of World War I, and historians now believe that this conflict may be part of the cause of the spread of the virus. On the Western Front, soldiers living in cramped, dirty, and humid environments became ill. 

This was a direct result of the weakened immune system caused by malnutrition. His disease was called "la grappe", it is contagious and spreads between the team. Many soldiers began to feel better within three days of illness, but all of them didn’t. 

In the summer of 1918, when the troops started returning home from vacation, they brought with them an undetected virus that made them sick. The virus spreads through cities, towns and villages in the soldiers' countries of origin. Many infected people, whether soldiers or civilians, did not recover quickly. 

The virus had the greatest impact on healthy young people in their 20s and 30s. According to National Geographic, in 2014, a new theory about the origin of the virus indicated that it first appeared in China. 

According to the book "The Last Plague" by Mark Humphries, previously undiscovered recorded link of the flu to the transport of Chinese workers who crossed Canada in 1917 and 1918. 

They remained in a sealed train container for six days before being transported across the country and continuing on to France. There, they needed to dig trenches, unload trains, lay tracks, repair roads, and repair damaged tanks. In total, more than 90,000 workers were mobilized to the Western Front. 

Humphries explained that in a survey of 25,000 Chinese workers in 1918, around 3,000 people completed their trip to medical isolation in Canada. At the time, due to racial stereotypes, their illness was attributed to "Chinese laziness". 

Canadian doctors did not take the workers' symptoms seriously. In early 1918, when these workers arrived in northern France, many people fell ill and hundreds of people soon died.

Why was it called the Spanish flu?

Spain was one of the first countries to discover this epidemic, but historians believe that this may be due to the censorship system during the war. Spain was a neutral country during the war and did not strictly censor its news, so it was free to publish the first reports about the disease. 

As a result, people mistakenly believed that the disease was unique to Spain, so the name "Spanish flu" was retained. Even in the late spring of 1918, a Spanish news agency sent a message to the London office of Reuters, informing the news agency that "a strange form of epidemic has emerged in Madrid. 

This epidemic is mild, not mild. Death reported according to Henry Davies' book "The Spanish Flu" (Henry Holt & Co., 2000)". In the two weeks after the report, more than 100,000 people became infected with the flu. 

The term "Spanish flu" quickly became popular in the UK. According to Niall Johnson's book "Great Britain and the 1918-19 Flu Pandemic" (Routledge, 2006), the British media attributed the Spanish flu epidemic to the weather in Spain: unpleasant and unhealthy. 

Season, "reads an article in The Times. Some people believe that strong winds in Spain are spreading breezes and dust, which means that the humid climate in the UK can prevent the spread of flu there.

What were the symptoms of the flu?

The initial symptoms of the disease include headache and fatigue, followed by dry cough and dry cough; loss of appetite; gastrointestinal problems; then, on the second day, profuse sweating. This disease may affect the respiratory organs and may develop into pneumonia. 

Humphries explained that influenza-induced pneumonia or other respiratory complications are usually the main cause of death. This explains why it is difficult to determine the exact number of deaths due to flu, because the cause of death listed is usually not flu.

What advice were people given?

Doctors do not know what to recommend to patients; many doctors urge people to avoid crowded places or other people. Other remedies suggested by others include eating cinnamon, drinking wine, and even drinking the Oxo meat drink (beef broth). 

The doctor also told people to cover their mouth and nose in public. At one point, aspirin use was blamed for causing a pandemic, but in fact it may have helped those infected.

How many people died?

In the spring of 1919, the number of deaths from the Spanish flu showed a downward trend. After the outbreak, countries were hit hard because medical professionals could not stop the spread of the disease. 

This pandemic echoes what happened 500 years ago, when the Black Death was raging around the world.

Nancy Bristow's book "American Pandemic: The Lost World of the 1918 Flu Pandemic" (Oxford University Press, 2016) explains that the virus affects 500 million people worldwide. 

At the time, this represented one-third of the world's population. As many as 50 million people have died from the virus, although the actual number is believed to be higher.

How to compare this against seasonal flu?

To date, the Spanish flu is still the deadliest flu pandemic to date, and it has claimed approximately 1% to 3% of the world’s population.

The most recent similar influenza pandemic occurred between 2009 and 2010, when a new form of H1N1 influenza strain emerged. This disease is called "swine flu" because the virus that causes it is similar to the virus found in pigs (not because the virus comes from pigs).

Written by: Renu Gorkhnath Chauhan

Edited by: Gourav Chowdhury

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