One hundred years ago, an epidemic of influenza spread around the world, killing millions of people. Troop movements and crowded quarters for soldiers in World War 1 helped the virus spread far and wide. In the United States, 675,000 people died from the disease. Due to the pandemic, life expectancy in the United States was decreased by 12 years.
One third of the world’s population or 500 million people were sickened by the flu. At least 50 million people died. Some estimates put the death toll closer to 100 million. Essentially, 3-5% of the world’s population died from this flu. This was one of the most deadly epidemics in human history, and was the highest death toll from any influenza epidemic.
In 1918, some forms of disease-causing bacteria had been identified, but viruses had not yet been discovered, so scientists were unable to identify the cause of influenza.
The 1918 pandemic flu claimed more lives in one year than AIDS has killed in 40 years, and more than the bubonic plague killed in a century. More soldiers died from the flu in 1918 than died in battle. This pandemic is sometimes referred to as the Spanish Flu, but it likely did not originate there. Spain was a neutral country in World War 1 so their news covered the epidemic more extensively than other countries, making it appear to be the center of the pandemic.
To fight the spread of the flu, people were encouraged to avoid crowds and pay closer attention to personal hygiene. In San Francisco, judges held court hearings outdoors, and people were discouraged from using streetcars.
One hundred years later, we are better prepared to fight the flu with vaccines, antivirals, antibiotics to fight secondary infections, mechanical ventilators, and protective gloves, gowns and masks. But the risk of a pandemic still exists. Increased international travel, rapid population growth, proximity to animals that carry viruses (birds, pigs) and the ability of the virus to rapidly mutate contribute to the challenges in preventing the next pandemic.
For more information about the 1918 pandemic click here