Exactly one hundred years ago, “the greatest pandemic in history” was raging. According to modern estimates, the Spaniard (Spanish flu) took the lives of between 70 and 100 million people, which was 5% of the world’s population at that time; half a billion people were infected. Most of the deaths were among young adults who were healthy in all other ways – while children and old people, who usually suffer more than any other category, this time were not so vulnerable.
Many call the Spanish outbreak the greatest pandemic of all time. However, against the backdrop of two World Wars, historians have paid surprisingly little attention to the topic (despite the fact that the number of victims was several times greater than the total military losses in World War I). Or rather, studies were conducted, different hypotheses and versions of what happened were expressed, but in the world collective consciousness there are still many mythological notions refuted by modern scientific data. Correction of these erroneous views will serve for a better understanding of what happened a hundred years ago, and whether it is possible to prevent such disasters in the future – or at least mitigate their consequences.
The Spanish influenza pandemic came from Spain
The nickname “Spaniard”, “Spanish flu” appeared for a completely different reason. The First World War was in full swing, and the opposing sides, in order not to inspire the enemy once again, tried their best to disguise their weaknesses. In particular, the publications devoted to the epidemic in Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain and the United States were very far from the real situation.
On the contrary, for neutral Spain, there was no need to hide the epidemiological statistics. This created the false impression that it was Spain that had taken the heaviest blow of the disease.
In reality, the origin of the “Spanish” strain of influenza is unknown to this day; the scientific debate mostly mentions East Asia, Europe and even Kansas.
The pandemic was caused by the “super-virus”
In 1918, the flu, spreading very quickly, killed 25 million people in the first six months. This gave a sense of a really coming doomsday (at least the end of the human race) and left the implicit belief that the “Spanish” strain was particularly lethal for a long time.
However, genetic studies of biomaterial samples taken from the remains of victims of the pandemic suggest otherwise.
The Spanish virus may have been slightly more aggressive than other strains, but in principle it did not differ from those viruses that caused influenza epidemics in subsequent years.
The high death rate was mainly due to the huge number of people gathered in military camps, hospitals and large cities where refugees flocked, as well as malnutrition and unsanitary conditions that always accompany wartime. Today, there is every reason to believe that under these conditions, many deaths were due not even to flu but to secondary bacterial pneumonia, which affected the lungs weakened by the virus.
The first wave of the pandemic was the worst
In reality, the initial wave of the pandemic (in the first half of 1918) had the lowest lethality rate. The most lethal was the second wave, which happened in October-December 1918. The third wave, which covered the world in the spring of 1919, did not reach the level of the second lethality, although it exceeded the first wave.
The virus killed the majority of those who fell ill
In fact, the vast majority of people infected in 1918 survived. National mortality rates among those infected, on average, did not exceed 20%.
However, the mortality rate varied among different groups of people. In the United States, for example, the mortality rate was particularly high among the indigenous population – probably because Indians were much less likely to have experienced previous strains of influenza. Some Native American communities were completely destroyed by the epidemic.
On the other hand, the twenty percent mortality rate is an order of magnitude higher than typical influenza epidemics, with less than one percent of those infected dying.