(Edited--With kind thanks to National Geographics (Oct. ’05) and DT History 22/8/07 – P65) The deaths attributed to WW 1 were estimated to be 20 million and this was over 4 years.
The Spanish Flu is estimated to have claimed over 100 million lives! And this was in an 18 month period from 1918 to 1919.
Whereas the First World War casualties were mainly in Europe—the Spanish Flu was world wide. The Spanish Flu was so named because it was first officially reported by a “free press” in Spain, in May 1918 (Spain was a neutral country during WW 1 and not subject to censorship).
Because war was being fought, mainly in Europe, there was tight censorship of information from all those involved and no side wanted to admit it was losing troops and civilians to a disease. The first deaths occurred at a US Army Military Base in Kansas in March 1918 but the censor stepped in and the deaths were not made public until much later.
On the European war front the disease was laying low entire divisions during the spring and early summer and then it seemed to subside.
It returned in late summer and now its virulence was unmistakable. The sick took to their beds with fever, piercing headache and joint pain. Many were young adults and this group would normally shrug off the flu. About 5% of the victims died—some in just 2 or 3 days.
Their faces turning a ghastly purple as they essentially suffocated to death. Doctors who opened the chests of the dead were horrified. The lungs, normally light and elastic were as heavy as water-logged sponges. After flashing through crowded military camps and troopships in Europe and the US, the flu leapt out of uniform to ports and industrial cities.
In Philadelphia, in the US, 12,000 people died of flu and pneumonia in October—759 died in one day. Morgues overflowed. An apparently healthy person could suddenly be struck down. It struck people who would normally be the most resistant. Flu is often seen as the killer of babies and old people with weak immune systems, but this virus struck down many apparently healthy young adults. It spread rapidly, killing 25 million people worldwide in the first 6 months (by comparison, it took about 25 years for AIDS to cause the same number of deaths).
The sickness had spread to the four corners of the earth—from the South Pacific to the Arctic. Initially, it was assumed unsanitary, overcrowded trenches contributed to the spread of the illness but the pandemic spread to places where there was no fighting or no returning soldiers including Alaska, the Arctic and Sweden. Soldiers returning home to Australia encountered strict quarantine restrictions, often being held up to 2 months to check they were not carrying the virus. Some had returned home from the horrors of the war only to catch the virus and die.
It was estimated that 30% of Sydney people were infected. The Health Authorities responded by closing all picture theatres and places of public entertainment. Face masks were made compulsory for passengers on all public transport and infected persons were quarantined. Many quarantine camps were set up around Australia to try and contain the virus. It was seen that more Australian men died than women, due to the fact that women spent more time at home than in public and work places and were therefore, less exposed to the risk.
The first case reported in Australia may have occurred as early as October 1918 but was not officially reported until much later and well after the pandemic had struck in the northern hemisphere—so our authorities had time to prepare. In parts of (British) India, the death rate was 30 times higher than in Australia. Australia was also distant from the main places of infection.
Many developing countries did not count the dead accurately, so it is likely that the disease claimed many more lives than the official figures show. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh probably had more deaths than estimated (18 million—rather than the reported 12 million).
It is thought that the number of deaths worldwide could have been as high as 100 million—more than 5% of the world’s population at the time. The virus disappeared as suddenly as it struck. Authorities were left to ponder why some perished and some were spared. Before the outbreak flu was regarded as a winter nuisance and it shattered the notion that it was a gentle killer of old or sick folk who were near death anyway.
This was a disaster that haunted a generation of medical researchers. After WW 2 the medical profession began to lose interest in the virus and so it slipped down the list of health priorities. In recent years, interest in the virus has been revived. There are concerns about Avian Flu and the impact of globalisation where no location in the world is more than about 30 hours travelling time from any location. There are now fresh clues to the virus of 1918/19. They have been buried in land that has been permanently frozen—victims in Alaska and the Arctic sometimes went to their graves preserving specimens of the flu virus. Medical researchers are now examining those bodies to learn more about the virus than it was possible to do at the time it swept across the world. A Mr. Jeffery Taubenberger, of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Maryland, USA, said, in regard to this infection…”Everybody on earth breathed in the virus and half of them got sick”.
He and his team have collected translucent wax blocks the size of matchboxes, borrowed from a pathology archive. They hold fingernail size scrapes of purplish tissue, sliced from the lungs of the flu victims in US Military Hospitals almost 90 years ago.
In the mid 1990’s, Taubenberger and his colleagues, realised that a sample from someone who died quickly, lungs still seething with virus, might still hold genetic traces of the killer--- They were right--- lung tissue taken from a soldier who died in September 1918 at Fort Jackson in South Carolina yielded pieces of the virus’s genes. A retired pathologist, Johan Hultin, inspired by Taubenberger’s findings, travelled to a remote Alaskan village and excavated a mass grave that had been hacked into the permafrost, after the virus swept through in November 1918. One female body still contained intact lung tissue, preserved by the cold and sheer luck. Taubenberger’s group teased out the entire genetic sequence of the virus. So far, the genetic blueprint hasn’t exactly revealed what made the Spanish Flu so deadly. It is thought that the Spanish Flu originated in birds sometime before 1918. It swept the globe in 1918 and early 1919 and except for a few Pacific Islanders everyone on earth was exposed to the virus and half got sick. (There has been the Asian Flu in 1957 causing about one million deaths, then we had the Hong Kong Flu in 1968 causing around 750,000 deaths.
The fear today is the H5N1 Bird Flu that is killing poultry and people in Asia. If this virus gained the ability to spread quickly from person to person it could cause a global pandemic of catastrophic proportion that would make the Spanish Flu deaths seem insignificant—some people give a figure of between 180 million to 360 million deaths.) --------------------------------------