The Pandemic of 1918

As the Corona virus has once again started to make headlines in the country due to the increase in cases after the Memorial Day weekend and reopening of the country, let’s look at a similar pandemic that happened in 1918. 

The Pandemic of 1918 is very reminiscent of the modern-day Corona virus pandemic, in that it quickly spread, was transmitted through the same ways, and impacted the whole world. The flu in 1918 has been categorized as the H1N1 influenza A virus. It got its original name “The Spanish Flu” from the media to spite the Spanish for being neutral during World War I and being able to freely report, while other countries did not want to spread the news as to keep morale up during the war. The first case that was reported, was of an army cook in Kansas on March 4th, 1918. Within days of a local doctor warning the US Public Health Services Academic Journal about the flu, 522 men in the same camp fell ill. The virus was said to have spread to New York by March 11th, 1918. Thus began the first phase of the pandemic.


100 Years Ago: The 1918 Flu Pandemic - Images

The first phase of the pandemic commenced as a result of U.S. soldiers going to Europe to fight in World War I. By May it reached North Africa, India, and Japan. In June it finally reached China and by July it reached Australia when the virus had started to lessen in the transmittal. The United States had reported ~75,000 flu-related deaths in the first six months of 1918, compared to ~63,000 deaths during the same period in 1915. There were no reported quarantines during spring 1918. However, the first phase caused a significant disruption in the military operations of World War I, with 3/4 of French troops, half the British forces, and over 900,000 German soldiers sick.

The second phase of the pandemic was the deadliest. It began in August of 1918 with the transport of soldiers from France to other maritime ports in the world. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate. In two months, all of North, Central, and South America encountered the second phase of the pandemic. By November, most African nations too reported cases as troops came back from France. October 1918, would see the highest mortality rate in the entire pandemic.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic Was Brutal, Killing More Than 50 Million ...

The third phase of the pandemic commenced in Australia in January of 1919 where 12,000 were killed after a maritime quarantine was lifted. From there it traveled to Europe and lasted until June of 1919. It would be the second deadliest phase, as the first phase would remain as the lightest touch in comparison to the phases that followed. Tens of thousands of people died. Even President Woodrow Wilson reportedly contracted the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.

The last phase of the pandemic was minor and isolated to areas in NY, Europe, and some of South America. It took place in Spring 1920. Peru and Japan were the last to report a short reappearance of the flu in late 1920.


1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic: The Virus That Infected One-Third Of ...

Several studies found that the virus probably spread due to overpopulated military bases and soldiers poor hygiene which provided the perfect environment for a respiratory virus to spread. Some of these bases also housed animals to feed the many soldiers at the bases. The pandemic may have had its origins, similar to Corona virus, in animals (more than likely some type of bird or pig) that was able to transmit to a human, therefore becoming a human virus. 


The Pandemic of 1918, infected nearly 500 million people in the world and killed an estimated 20-50 million victims. 675,000 of those were Americans. More U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during World War I. The flu killed more people in 24 weeks than HIV/AIDS killed in 24 years. However, it killed a much lower percentage of the world’s population than the Black Death, which lasted for many more years.

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The pandemic mostly killed young healthy adults. In 1918–1919, 99% of pandemic influenza deaths in the U.S. occurred in people under 65, and nearly half of deaths were in young adults 20 to 40 years old. Modern analysis has shown the virus to be particularly deadly because it triggers a cytokine storm (overreaction of the body’s immune system), which ravages the stronger immune system of young adults. The strong immune reactions of young adults were postulated to have ravaged the body, whereas the weaker immune reactions of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths among those groups. 

Philadelphia parade - 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: Here's what the ...

Additionally, hospitals in some areas were so overloaded with flu patients that schools, private homes, and other buildings had to be converted into makeshift hospitals, some of which were staffed by medical students. During the pandemic to stop the spread, officials in some communities imposed quarantines, ordered citizens to wear masks, and shut down public places, including schools, churches, and theaters – similar to Corona. People were advised to avoid shaking hands and to stay indoors, libraries put a halt on lending books, and regulations were passed banning spitting (can you imagine that – spitting). Some cities like Philadelphia thought the flu was not that serious and on September 28, decided to host a Liberty Loan parade attended by tens of thousands, spreading the disease like wildfire. In just 10 days, over 1,000 Philadelphians were dead, with another 200,000 sick. By March 1919, over 15,000 citizens had lost their lives. Citizens in San Francisco were fined $5—a significant sum at the time—if they were caught in public without masks and charged with disturbing the peace.

At the time, Aspirin was newly available to all companies to develop as its original patent ran out in 1917, and was easily available for doctors to prescribe. Therefore during the pandemic to relieve symptoms, doctors prescribed near-lethal amounts of Aspirin, now outlawed in our modern-day. Due to this, many suffered from symptoms of aspirin poisoning and it’s now believed that many of the October 1918 (second phase) deaths were caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning. 


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As we are in the modern day we can be thankful that technology and medicine have advanced but, there were mistakes in the Pandemic of 1918, there too have been mistakes with the modern-day Corona virus. In the positive light, we have better media outlets to spread information to the general public. We are not currently in a world war. There are way more hospitals that have procedures in place for an outbreak of some sort. We have easier access to healthcare today and various testing facilities, even though it can be very expensive. There are many positives when it comes to a pandemic in 2020.

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However, on the negative side, similar mistakes in the modern day have seemed to be repeated and not learned from history, such as cities reopening and having social events that require crowds of people that can easily be a playing ground for the virus to spread. The media only wants to share what they think is true or what they want their audience to believe. We have a president who is more so on the side of not wanting to believe everything so governors and citizens follow his lead, infecting those who could have avoided being infected in the first place. As Americans travel throughout the world, as they did as soldiers in the military in 1918, earlier precautions should have taken place to avoid the spread of the virus (i.e. closing off borders). And if history were to repeat itself, how long will it take for a vaccine to be readily available to the public? Will it contain all of the new strains of the virus that have recently been found? The Pandemic of 1918 ended in 1920, but it wasn’t until the early 1940s when the first flu vaccine was available that helped to eliminate the re-emergence of the flu of 1918/ H1N1 Influenza A virus.


One thought on “The Pandemic of 1918

  1. Thanks, I was glad to learn about that pandemic of 1918 which I knew nothing of. History really repeats itself. After reading this I believe the authorities in some states have failed us.


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