Why Spanish Flu Killed Over 50 Million People – Deadliest Plague in Modern History

Why Spanish Flu Killed Over 50 Million People – Deadliest Plague in Modern History


It’s Monday March 11, 1918, at a military
training facility in Kansas called Fort Riley. Around 26,000 young men are stationed there,
and on that particular day a mess cook named Private Albert Gitchell woke up feeling like
hell. He had a high fever, his throat was sore,
and his body ached all over. The man went to see a nurse, and indeed, the
guy was burning up. He had a temperature of 103°F (39.4 C). Soon after Gitchell, one Corporal Lee Drake
visited the nurse with pretty much the same symptoms. Sergeant Adolph Hurby was next to join the
line, and that line would keep getting longer and longer. Was Gitchell patient zero? That’s a matter of controversy, but more
and more sick American soldiers at camps all over the country would head to the battlefields
of Europe. All hell was about to break loose. Before we get to just how devastating this
flu was, in view of what we’ve just told you, you are probably wondering why it was
called the “Spanish flu” and not the “Kansas” flu. Well, as to where the flu originated has been
studied by many researchers for many years. In 1916 to 1917, in France, 100s of thousands
of soldiers passed through a certain hospital camp in France. There, military pathologists reported a flu-like
disease that had a high mortality rate. One theory, and a serious one at that, is
that the disease spread from the poultry at the camp, onto the pigs, and then to the humans. Other researchers have postulated that it
started in Austria, or China, or some parts of East Asia, or indeed the USA. It might have been imported to Europe, or
originated in Europe, and that discussion is still going on. The reason we call it the Spanish Flu is merely
because Spain’s media wasn’t heavily censored during wartime and so that country’s newspapers
made it look like Spain (neutral in the war) was the worst hit country of all, which wasn’t
true. The name seems to have stuck, though. It should be called, “Not The Spanish Flu.” This deadly flu travelled fast, and it’s
estimated that around 27 percent of the world’s population of 1.8 to 1.9 billion people got
infected. It’s hard to get the exact numbers, and
the estimates vary widely, but it’s thought the death toll of this flu was at least 50
million and maybe as much as 100 million. That’s more people than died in world war
one. Around half a million people from the USA
died from the flu, and what’s surprising, is that young adults from their 20s to their
40s were the worst hit. To put that into perspective for you, in 1917
the life expectancy in the U.S. was 51…in 1918 it had dropped to 39. The theory why the virus seemed to kill more
people who you could say should have had the strongest immune systems, those in the prime
of their life, is that a similar flu pandemic had happened some decades earlier but that
flu wasn’t quite as lethal. The survivors of that flu may have developed
an immunity and so when the Spanish Flu came around they dealt with it better. As for it not getting the very young people,
the theory is the flu had less effect on them. There’s another reason the healthiest people
died, and we’ll get around to that soon. This Spanish flu was virtually in every part
of the world. In India an estimated 17 million people died,
around five percent of the country’s population. In the Dutch East Indies around 1.5 million
people died. 390,000 Japanese people succumbed to the deadly
disease. In Britain 250,000 flu deaths were reported
and in France 400,000 people died. In Iran the number of people that died was
between 902,400 and 2,431,000. Some smaller rural communities were the worst
hit in terms of death ratios, and that’s because they tended to live in closer confines. For example, in German Samoa 90 percent of
the population came down with the Spanish Flu. 30% of adult men died, as did 22% of
adult women as well as 10% of the children. Few places in the world were not hit by the
flu and that is because they were so remote. For example, islands in Fiji, in the South
Pacific called the Lau and Yasawa islands, had no cases, as did Marajo island on Brazil’s
Amazon delta. Some parts of Alaska were also spared of the
horrors of the pandemic. We’re not going to spend an entire show
on the death toll estimates from all over the world because that would take up all the
time, and we are sure by now you understand that the Spanish Flu wreaked havoc across
all four corners of the globe and was one of the most terrifying things that happened
in the 20th century. Let’s talk about how it spread so fast and
why it couldn’t be contained. Well, for one thing, infected soldiers living
in close quarters in often terrible conditions didn’t help matters, neither did the fact
those soldiers were travelling far and wide. The war was a “world” war and it involved
many countries, some with empires and many colonies. It’s believed that there was a first wave
of the flu, but the deadlier second wave spread so fast because of wartime troop movements. This is how one historian put it, “The entire
military industrial complex of moving lots of men and material in crowded conditions
was certainly a huge contributing factor in the ways the pandemic spread.” This first wave was not so bad, more like
a seasonal flu one might get these days. But that second wave was fearsome, especially
when reports came in that young healthy people had come down with a fever and then were dead
within 24 hours. How could that happen? Well, in some cases the patient would first
have a very high fever. Next would come nasal hemorrhaging and pneumonia,
their lungs would fill with fluid and they would literally drown in that fluid. Doctors at the time were not aware of what
was happening. Some British doctors said the state of the
deceased lungs were so bad that chemical warfare had to be to blame. We now know that there is a condition known
as “cytokine explosion.” This is basically an immune response from
the body to help a person when he or she has been attacked by a virus. But there can be an over-reaction, and when
the body sends too many of the messenger proteins called cytokines this can create an explosion. The downside to this is inflammation and that
fluid build-up in the lungs we just mentioned. This might also be the reason mostly people
in their 20s to 40s died, because their really strong immune systems caused the biggest storms
of cytokine. Their bodies over-reacted. Now let’s let you listen to the words of
a U.S. surgeon general who witnessed the sight of hundreds of young soldiers entering a hospital,
all suffering from the Spanish Flu. This is how he described the scene:
“They are placed on the cots until every bed is full, yet others crowd in. Their faces soon wear a bluish cast; a distressing
cough brings up the blood stained sputum. In the morning the dead bodies are stacked
about the morgue like cord wood.” Back then doctors didn’t know what the virus
was, and they weren’t equipped with electron microscopes to study the virus. These days doctors do have those things and
they know how to isolate a virus, and because of that they can look at its genetic sequence
and then attempt to create antiviral drugs and hopefully come up with a vaccine. In 1918, when all the troops from around the
world were mixing together and going back to their hometowns, there was no such technology. On top of that, when people showed early signs
of the disease and moved about in public it was hard to test them and so they weren’t
quarantined as they would be now. Humans are now very good at estimating where
the virus will spread and so can isolate various places. Now there is something called “contact tracing”,
which basically means health authorities looking at who has been close to someone who has been
infected and then testing those people to see if they got it. The healthcare workers now will wear protective
equipment and the public will have daily updated knowledge on what they can do to stay away
from the disease. or at least do the right thing to reduce their
chances of getting it. None of that happened back then, and there
was no way workers could just choose to work at home or people could go on the Internet
to find the latest news. As we said, most media during the war, including
that of the U.S., the U.K. and France were not reporting the spread of the deadly disease
because that didn’t look good for the war effort. Spain did most of the media reporting, and
if you hadn’t done your research you’d think this flu originated there. We should say this, though, the authorities
did know that people spread disease to other people. That much was obvious to anyone. Europeans and most of the rest of the world
knew all about pandemics, and that infected people should be kept away from healthy people. In Britain during the war the Chief Medical
Officer of the Local Government Board, Sir Arthur Newsholme, knew very well that a lockdown
could help prevent further spread of the disease, but that was out of the question because of
the war effort. Those munitions factories and many other industries
could not just stop. Research shows he knew what was happening
but he encouraged the British to just “carry-on” with what they were doing. In his own words he said, “The relentless
needs of warfare justified incurring the risk of spreading infection.” You can’t just blame Britain for this, the
world was at war and countries weren’t about to start quarantining large parts of their
populations. That didn’t mean people weren’t warned
to avoid busy places, and some stores in the USA were at least closed. Signs hung on the door warning of the spread
of this deadly influenza. In Japan and Australia people were photographed
in the streets wearing face masks. You can even find news reports from back then
of Boy Scouts handing out leaflets to people they’d seen spitting in the streets of New
York City. On those leaflets the words written were,
“You are in violation of the Sanitary Code.” But in the USA there was a huge nurse shortage,
and those nurses were needed to take care of influenza sufferers since there were no
drugs to combat the disease. Instead, they gave soldiers baths, enough
bed rest, aspirin, whiskey, cough syrups, and they gave them clean bedding, and hot
soup. When you come down with a flu this kind of
care can be effective. 9,000 trained white nurses were sent to Europe
to help the sick soldiers, and thousands more worked in U.S. military camps. But there just weren’t enough of them given
the size of the problem. More American soldiers died from flu during
that war than they did in battle. There were African American nurses ready to
go help the war effort, but because they mostly graduated from small segregated hospital training
schools they were not utilized where American soldiers and civilians had the flu. This was sheer madness, and not something
that could ever happen in our modern world. But it’s just another reason why the Spanish
Flu was as deadly as it was. It was the same in the civilian hospitals
in the U.S., which were also packed with flu victims. Black nurses for the most part were denied
entrance. This is what the U.S. National Institutes
of Health wrote about that, “As a result, by August 1918, civilian hospitals were left
with minimal staff—not nearly enough to meet the demands that would follow when flu
patients flooded into hospital wards.” After the war ended, the American Medical
Association wrote that now there was a new challenge in the world and that was infectious
disease. It called this the greatest enemy of them
all. At the end of 1918 the cases just kept dropping
until it seemed the Spanish Flu pandemic was almost over. One theory is that medical professionals became
better at dealing with it, but it’s more likely that the strain of the disease just
mutated into something much less lethal. It wasn’t until mid-way through 1919 that
the Spanish Flu pandemic was said to be officially over. Other flu pandemics would come, but none as
deadly as the Spanish Flu. It’s actually sometimes called the “forgotten
pandemic”. Maybe even some of you had never heard of
this devastating outbreak. The reason it was forgotten of course was
because it happened during one of the bloodiest wars in history. We don’t want to worry you, and there is
no doubt that medical science and global collaboration efforts would ensure nothing so deadly in
the world of flu viruses could happen again. We now have antiviral drugs, antibiotics,
respirators, specialized intensive care units and we have information that flows fast and
free. We can track the spread of a virus and we
have the ability to contain viruses, and we also have people working on vaccines. Now let’s have a look at something arguably
even scarier, and told in the style of our amazing I AM channel. This story is a must watch, “I AM A Black
Death (The Plague) Doctor.” To compliment that show, you should also take
a look at this, “What Made The Black Death So Deadly & Who Were The Plague Doctors.”

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