The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than were killed in the four years of the Great War that had preceded it. Now known as World War 1 - the Great War was nowhere near as devastating in terms of loss of life as the flu which killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It is widely agreed to be the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died in the single year of the epidemic than in the four years of the Black Death bubonic plague that occurred in the mid 1300s.
Know as the “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe - the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.
As the Great War wound down, something started spreading that seemed initially to be the common cold but was far, far worse. It started in a military training camp in Fort Riley, Kansas. On the morning of March 11, 1918 a solder went to the infirmary with a fever. By lunchtime on the same day one hundred soldiers had reported sick with the same symptoms. Some researchers felt this was the point of origin of the pandemic. Others pointed to Chinese labourers that had been brought to France to work behind the lines during the war as being the source of the virus. Reports are conflicting.
At one stage, twenty percent of the worlds’ population was infected. Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill the young, or the very old or patients with already weakened immune systems. In the case of the Spanish flu, it was most deadly in young healthy people in the age range of 20 - 40. Scientists still do not fully understand why this flu was so fatal, especially to people in the prime of their lives.
A pathologist was able to obtain a frozen sample of the Spanish flu virus from a mass grave in a tiny Alaskan town called Brevig Mission which lost 85% of its population in a week. Evidence gathered pointed to respiratory failure and death being caused by a cytokine storm which is the overreaction of ones’ own immune system. This helps explain why it would have affected healthy younger people the most, since this population has the most robust immune systems. This is much like what happened in the SARS epidemic of 2002 - 2003.
Scientists also believe that the elderly population fared somewhat better as they had some immunity due to being exposed to the Russian flu of the pandemic of 1889 -1890.
Recent investigations and review of records have found that the actual strain of the flu virus responsible for the pandemic was not particularly virulent. The main causative factor for the astounding number of fatalities was believed to be the terrible conditions so many people were living in at the time. People were malnourished due to years of war, there was overcrowding of medical camps and hospitals and poor hygiene. This led to prolonged flu symptoms and subsequent bacterial infections which caused people to die.
Wartime censors limited reporting on the flu in Germany, Britain and the USA to prevent worsening morale of the troops. In Spain which was neutral in the war, reporting was allowed, so it seemed that there were a disproportionate number of cases occurring there, giving rise to the misleading name of the Spanish flu.