The Spanish flu, the 1900s pandemic that killed tens of millions of people around the world

From the 1918 in 1920 the whole world was hit by one new form of influenzawhich went down in history as “Spanish flu” or “great flu”. The spread of the infection was facilitated by the First World War, which created particularly favorable conditions for the circulation of the virus. The “Spanish” had this name because the first news reached Europe from Spain, but its origins are not known with certainty. It seems that she was brought to Europe by American soldiers; she particularly affected Spain, France and Italy. What is certain is that the pandemic developed in three wavesreaching every corner of the globe, and caused an estimated number of deaths between 20 and 100 million from 1918 to 1920.

At the time medicine did not yet know the virus and was unable to propose effective solutions, although the remedies improved as the months passed. They also proved useful prevention measures, which however, also due to the war, were not introduced in all countries. The “Spanish Flu” was almost forgotten for decades and only in the last few years has the interest of the scientific community and public opinion been rekindled.

What type of virus was the Spanish flu and why was it called that

The “Spanish Flu” was a flu pandemic, caused by a Influenza RNA virus type A, subtype H1N1. Influenza, as we know, is a very common infectious disease and generally has a fatality rate (percentage of deaths over infected) very low, less than 0.1%. The Spanish flu of 1918, however, caused millions of deaths.

The H1N1 virus (creit Cybercobra)

The origins of the pandemic are not known with certainty. For many years it was believed that the virus first appeared in the United States, more precisely in a Kansas military camp, where the soldiers leaving for Europe were quartered. New theories have recently emerged, according to which the virus was already circulating before 1918 and had developed in Europe or China.

What is certain is that the epidemic It has nothing to do with Spain, which was affected, but no more than other countries. The name “Spanish” is due to the fact that the first news about the pandemic reached Europe from the Iberian Peninsula. Almost the entire continent was involved in the First World War and the warring countries were in force censorship, which prevented publishing news about the disease. Spain was neutral and, since newspapers regularly discussed the pandemic, the European media initially presented it as a phenomenon limited to the Iberian Peninsula.

A Madrid newspaper with news on the pandemic

Symptoms and lethality: how many deaths it caused

The symptoms of those who were infected were very serious: fever, breathing difficulties, vomiting, bleeding. The lethality rate varied from place to place and remained on average around 3-4%: it may seem like a low figure, but, as the pandemic infected hundreds of millions of individuals, the effects were devastating. Estimates fluctuate between 20 and 100 million victims. In absolute data, the Spanish flu caused perhaps more deaths than the plague of the 1300s (for which estimates vary from 50 to 200 million people). In relative terms, an inclusive proportion lost their lives between 1% and 5.4% of the world population.

Lethality varied greatly depending on the places, social classes and age of the infected. The most gruesome aspect was that the disease resulted particularly lethal in the population between 20 and 40 years, that is, the one that generally resists infectious diseases better. To explain this anomaly, scientists have put forward various hypotheses, including the presence of antibodies in the older populationwho had already been exposed to similar viruses in previous years, and the conditions of the immune systemwhich is activated more rapidly in young people.

In Italy it is estimated that the Spanish flu pandemic caused something like 600,000 victims out of a population of 40 million inhabitants.

Nurse and patient in Washington, 1919

The three waves of the Spanish flu

The Spanish Flu developed in three main waves. The first manifested itself in March 1918 in the United States and arrived in Europe around mid-April, spreading first in military camps and then in the rest of the population.

There second wavewhich developed between the late summer and autumn of 1918, was much more violent of the previous one. The virus had mutated, becoming more aggressive, and in Europe the conditions were particularly favorable for its circulation, because the First World War meant that there were enormous gatherings of soldiers, food shortage, lack of hygiene. The second wave also probably started from the United States, and from there reached Europe and then the rest of the world. No territory was spared.

The spread of the virus slowed at the end of the year, but in early 1919 the spread began third wave, whose impact, fortunately, was less severe. In the following months, other outbreaks occurred, limited to limited geographical areas, and by the end of 1920 the pandemic could be considered overcome.

The reactions of science and the population

In the 19th century, medicine had made enormous progress, but still he didn’t know about viruses. The Spanish flu pathogen was identified only in 1933, more than ten years after the end of the pandemic. The doctors, therefore, found themselves taken aback and proposed ineffective treatments. Furthermore, there were no vaccines and, due to the war, governments were unable to invest significant resources in the sick.

In some cases, they revealed themselves non-pharmacological measures are very useful: masks, distancing, school closures and ban on gatherings. The measures were applied differently from country to country and even from city to city within individual countries, but in places where they were most rigorously observed they managed to limit the infections.

Cops wearing masks in Seattle

As always happens during pandemics, charlatans proliferated, that is, people who proposed antiscientific explanations and sometimes boasted of possessing miraculous remedies. Advertisements frequently appeared in newspapers for products such as tablets, toothpastes and syrups which, according to sellers, would limit contagion. It was, of course, about completely ineffective remedies.

The memory of the pandemic

Wartime censorship meant that, while the pandemic was underway, news circulated in a very limited way. Anyone who gave alarming news risked being accused of defeatism and therefore the newspapers always tried to minimize the proportions of infections and reassure the population. Even in the following years, little was said about the Spanish Flu, especially because it had developed during an even more traumatic event, such as the First World War, which monopolized the attention of historians.

Generally, in history books the Spanish flu is dedicated no more than a few lines in the chapters on the war. Only in recent years have researchers and public opinion shown greater interest in the pandemic, in particular after, in 1997, some scientists were able to “recover” the virus from a frozen corpse and to recreate it in the laboratory. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has further increased attention on the Spanish flu.

Memorial in Auckland, New Zealand