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The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 - Could It Happen Again?

Updated on August 19, 2013
Some people did wear face masks to protect themselves, but so much was unknown in 1918 about how viruses were spread.
Some people did wear face masks to protect themselves, but so much was unknown in 1918 about how viruses were spread. | Source

"I got a disease / I think that I'm sick / But leave me be while my world is coming down on me."
- Matchbox Twenty lyrics from Disease

Sickness is a scary thing. When it comes to something really big, like a worldwide outbreak of the flu, some people outright panic while others are much less alarmed.

We hear about the bird flu, the swine flu and just about every other kind of contagious disease we can imagine on the news. We see images of folks walking around in crowded streets wearing surgical masks trying to keep the disease at bay.

Though medical science has made progress by leaps and bounds when it comes to treating and eradicating diseases, anything can happen. In 1918, millions of people died due to a nasty strain of the flu.

That, however, was 1918. We are much more advanced technologically and medically than our ancestors.

Or are we?

The Spanish flu affected an estimated 500 million people in 1918-1919. This is a battalion of soldiers from Fort Riley, KS, all sick with the flu.
The Spanish flu affected an estimated 500 million people in 1918-1919. This is a battalion of soldiers from Fort Riley, KS, all sick with the flu. | Source

The Spanish Flu of 1918

In 1918, an influenza virus swept the globe, killing an estimated 50 to 100 million people, or 3-6% of the total population of the planet at the time - more than the Black Death.

With most viruses of this type, the old, the young and the infirm are usually struck the hardest, but the Spanish Flu was different. It caused the body's immune system to overreact - a symptom called a cytokine storm. Essentially, it caused the body to kill itself, and those with the strongest immune systems were the most affected. The bulk of the people who succumbed to the disease were young adults, in the primes of their lives.

The planet was also in the middle of a war while the Spanish Flu was taking lives. In fact, it was called the Spanish Flu because Spain was neutral during World War I, and did not have media blackouts that could cause a drop in morale. Though there were plenty of ill folks in the US, the UK and Germany, those countries did not allow any official news reporting on the disease or its victims.

The first outbreak in the United States was observed and reported in Haskell County, Kansas in January of 1918. By March, the virus was reported in New York. Scientist aren't sure where the virus first appeared, but it is known that in France, the disease jumped species, first to birds and then to pigs and it did mutate, becoming more virulent and aggressive. This caused what is referred to as the "second wave" of illnesses and contagion - this is the virus that killed those in perfect health.

By November of 1918, the virus had completely disappeared. Scientists theorize that it had mutated again, into a much weaker strain.

Just like a century ago - Brazilians protect themselves with facemasks during a 2009 outbreak of the avian flu.
Just like a century ago - Brazilians protect themselves with facemasks during a 2009 outbreak of the avian flu. | Source

Do you think a killer pandemic like the Spanish Flu of 1918 could happen again?

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Could a Flu Pandemic Happen Now?

Scientists do have samples of tissue saved from the Spanish Flu. They have mapped the genetic sequence of the flu and have determined that it is likely the ancestor of viruses like H1N1 that are currently popping up all over the globe at different times. One of the reasons that it spread so far so quickly is that it moved with troops who were deployed all over the planet during World War I.

So, could this happen again?

Though it is the subject of many suspense and horror novels as well as movies and television shows, pandemics are very real things. Because of the access we now have to long-distance travel, you or I could be infected in New York and hop on a plane to spread it around halfway across the planet in a matter of hours.

We do have a few things working in our favor that our ancestors did not have in 1918. We have access to flu shots, though they do not protect against every flu strain on the planet. We also have massive intelligence when it comes to communications. Most people have access to either the internet, television or the radio and we can get the news that something bad is coming and can take precautions. We have testing that is fast and infinitely more accurate than the doctors had in 1918. We also have more of an understanding of hygiene and its relation to viruses, as well as a virtual treasure trove of drugs that can ward off just about anything these days.

There is, however, still a possibility that a pandemic could happen again. The CDC says that "Even with modern antiviral and antibacterial drugs, vaccines, and prevention knowledge, the return of a pandemic virus equivalent in pathogenicity to the virus of 1918 would likely kill >100 million people worldwide."

If the population is to survive another pandemic, then all countries and governments would have to cooperate and share information. Also, the public needs to be informed and educated on how to keep themselves in good health should an outbreak occur.

Short Documentary About The Spanish Flu of 1918.

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    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 3 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      It is scary. If you take into account Ebola at the moment it is only too clear that a pandemic can strike again as it is popping up all over the globe.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Georgie, interesting hub. I have an odd fascination with things like this, but my fascination tends to focus on how society would cope in the aftermath of such a thing. I even wrote a couple of hubs on the subject. Realistically, I think a new Spanish flu could cause great devastation, but our civilisation would survive in one way or another. Thanks for an interesting article.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Two in one day, Georgie! Wow! I'm impressed, and good job on this one. Great research, and I like your conclusion...if all countries worked together. Maybe that's what we need for world peace? I hope not!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      These thoughts are always scary. Thanks for bringing this out in the open for current awareness. Voted Up and sharing.