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A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Worldwide flu pandemic strikes
1918 - 1919

Late in the spring of 1918 the Spanish wire service Agencia Fabra sent cables of an unusual nature to Reuter's news service headquarters in London. "A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid," it said. "The epidemic is of a mild nature, no deaths having been reported." The illness began with a cough, then headache and backache, fatigue, high fever, racing heart, loss of appetite and labored breathing. It usually lasted about three days. Cases had cropped up over the spring and summer in other countries, too, from Norway to India, China to Costa Rica. But in Spain, suddenly 8 million people were down with the bug. And as the summer of 1918 turned to fall, the epidemic lost its mildness: people started to die.

The influenza commonly called "Spanish flu" killed more people than the guns of World War I. Estimates put the worldwide death toll at 21,642,274. Some one billion people were affected by the disease -- half of the total human population. It came at a time when 19 nations were at war and the disruption, stress, and privation of war certainly aided the flu's transmission. It killed people on every continent except Antarctica, with the most lives lost in Asia and the highest percentage of population killed in India. From August 1918, when cases of the flu started looking abnormally high, until the following July when they returned to about normal, 20 million Americans became sick and more than 500,000 died. In October, 1918, the flu reached its peak, killing about 195,000 Americans. About 57,000 American soldiers died from influenza while the U.S. was at war; about 53,500 died in battle.

There wasn't much doctors could do. In the course of the epidemic nearly every known therapy was tried -- quinine tablets, bleeding, castor oil, digitalis, morphine, enemas, aspirin, tobacco, hot baths, cold baths, iron tonics, and expectorants of pine tar. Little was known about the virus, except that it was contagious. After deaths from the disease began in earnest, many local governing bodies closed down theaters, churches, and other public gatherings. Ordinances made it illegal to spit, cough, or sneeze in public -- with threat of $500 fines in New York City. When people went out they wore gauze masks over their nose and mouth, often soaked in camphor or other medicinal substances.

After months of terrorizing people around the world, the "Spanish lady" (called "The Naples Soldier" in Spain, and a variety of other names around the world) seemed to withdraw. It had been the most dire epidemic since the Middle Ages, the third worst in recorded history. For all its destruction, it did not get much press at the time. War and then peace monopolized the front pages. And still little is known about the origin or nature of the killer virus. Many believe the modern "swine flu" virus is a descendant of the deadly 1918 flu. Some theorize that its stronger ancestor ganged up with a bacteria to wreak havoc on the human population. In recent years, vaccinations against various strains of influenza have been introduced.

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