History’s Worst Pandemic

The Spanish Influenza was caused by a particularly virulent form of the H1N1 influenza virus. Infections reached pandemic proportions in the autumn of 1918; with alarming speed it spread to all parts of the world, only the tiny volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha, in the South Atlantic was spared. [1]. It was a particularly virulent form of the virus and afflicted healthy individuals in the prime of life as opposed to the young and old — the usual prey of the influenza virus. [2]

The number of deaths caused by the Spanish ’flu cannot be known, but estimates range up to one hundred million world-wide. One alarming characteristic of the pandemic was the high mortality of young people – between the ages of 15–34 – “a phenomenon that has not occurred in any other epidemic or pandemic of Influenza A” before or since and which, in the United States, lowered the life expectancy by ten years. [3].

The pandemic was so horrific / significant / damaging that it probably hastened the Armistice as the armies were so exhausted and depleted that they could no longer fight. It also led to the recognition that the world was woefully ill-prepared to deal with such pandemic events with the results that, in Canada, the organization of public health services was greatly improved; the Red Cross, previously active only in wartime decided that the pandemic was reason enough to extend its activities into peace time; and medical research to find answers and cures was initiated and continues to this day. [4].

Medical researchers have reconstructed the Spanish Influenza virus using preserved lung tissue from an influenza victim who had been buried in the permafrost in Alaska in November 1918, They wanted to understand which characteristics of 1918 virus made it so virulent; this work is vital in order to be able to enable public health systems to deal with any future influenza pandemics. [5].

Want to know more?

Why was the 1918–1920 pandemic called The Spanish flu?

What is influenza?

How did it travel so quickly?

Why is influenza sometimes a cold and sometimes a killer?

Why did some sufferers look black?

What precautions did society try?

Could it happen again?

Why has the Spanish ’flu been virtually ignored by historians?

Dorothy Mindenhall

1. Janice P. Dickin McGinnis, “The Impact of Epidemic Influenza: Canada, 1918-1919”, Historical Papers /  Communications historiques, Volume 12, Number 1, 1977, Pages 20-140, p. 135 and p. 138, n. 13, Adolph A. Hoehling, The Great epidemic, (Boston, 1961) p. 8. <http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/030824ar> accessed on 3 March 2014.

2. World Health Organization <http://www.who.int/topics/influenza/en/> accessed on 6 March 2014.

3. Terrence M. Tumpey, Christopher F. Basler, Patricia V. Aguilar, Hui Zeng, Alicia Solórzano, David E. Swayne, Nancy J. Cox, Jacqueline M. Katz, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Peter Palese and Adolfo García-Sastre, “Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus”, Science, New Series, Vol. 310, No. 5745 (Oct. 7, 2005), pp. 77-80, p. 77, quotation p. 80, n. 3, W. P. Glezen, Epidemiol.Rev. 18, 64 (1996). <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3842863> accessed on 14 March 2014.

4. McGinnis, “The Impact …”, pp. 135–136.

5. Tumpey, et al., “Characterization …”, p. 80.