The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918: The ‘Spanish Flu’
As children skipped rope in 1918, they would sing a rhyme: "I had a little bird/And its name was Enza/I opened the window/And in-flew-enza."
It started like any seasonal flu: a cough, a headache, fatigue, chills, and a high fever. There were a few deaths reported here and there in the spring of 1918, but the flu seemed unremarkable at that point. By August 1918, however, doctors were perplexed and highly alarmed that the flu virus was back in a much more vicious form. It was unusual in that it was taking many young, otherwise healthy adults as its victims, particularly those in the military. A person with this flu would develop dark brown spots on his cheeks, then a thick bloody fluid would start to invade his lungs. Next, the victim's face would turn blue and he would bleed out of his nose and ears, fighting a panicky feeling of drowning as he spewed a pinkish froth from his mouth and desperately tried to inhale. After hours of anguished struggle, he would suffocate to death.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the July 11, 1918, issue of the Macon Weekly Telegraph (Georgia)
Although no one can be completely certain, many researchers have speculated that the origin of the "Spanish flu"—as it would become known—was in the middle of Kansas, centered in a large military base and some local farms. During the winter of 1918 pneumonia killed a number of farmers living in Haskell County, Kansas. Camp Funston, training young men for fighting in World War I, was in Fort Riley, Kansas. In early spring at Camp Funston, a cook showed up at the base infirmary one morning complaining of a very bad cold. By noon that day, 100 men were being treated for the same illness. Within three weeks 1,100 soldiers had been admitted to the hospital, all being treated for this aggressive form of influenza. Many of the men living in Fort Riley that spring traveled to Europe to fight in the war. The next bout of illnesses popped up in the frontlines—this time it was German soldiers who were sick. Because men are stationed in such close living quarters, war often breeds illnesses such as the flu.
When the Great War ended in the fall of 1918, the soldiers happily returned home, many of them infected with the Spanish flu, which in medical terms is referred to as Influenza A(H1N1). The flu by then had mutated to a lethal level, and began to demolish civilian communities around the world. Schools, churches, restaurants, and many businesses closed. People were warned not to gather or congregate in public. You could get arrested for coughing if you did not cover your mouth. It was mandatory in some places to wear a mask. In rural areas, alternative remedies were tried to keep the flu away. All of these urgent attempts did little to diminish the staggering toll that the flu inflicted on the world.
The Great Influenza of 1918 affected more than half of the world's population, spanning from the Arctic to New Zealand. It killed at least 50,000,000 people worldwide. Around 675,000 of those deaths were in the United States. The flu killed more than twice the number that died fighting World War I. In its most virulent period, as John M. Barry notes, it wiped out "more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years." It was one of the most deadly pandemics in human history.
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