The First Pandemics Spread in the World

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Spanish flu: The Virus that Changed the World

In spring 1918 a disease started to mop around the planet – a deadly virus that affected a third of the world’s population and left upwards of 50 million dead. Laura Spinney examines the devastating impact and far-reaching legacy of the Spanish flu pandemic

On 28 September 1918, a Spanish publication gave its readers a short lesson on influenza. “The agent accountable for this infection,” it explained, “is the Pfeiffer’s bacillus, which is extremely tiny and evident only using a microscope.”

The information was timely because the world was in the grip of the most vicious flu pandemic on record but it was also wrong: flu is caused by a virus. Sadly, it wasn’t just one Spanish newspaper that had misidentified the causative agent of the infection. The idea that flu was caused by a bacillus or bacterium, was believed by the most eminent scientists of the day, who would find themselves almost completely helpless in the face of the scourge.

What Was the Spanish Flu Pandemic?

The H1N1 influenza virus was one of the most destructive disasters in history. Between the first recorded case in March 1918 and the last in March 1920, an estimated 50 million people died, though some experts advise that the total might have been twice that number.

The ‘Spanish flu’ killed more than the First World War, possibly more even than the Second World War – indeed, perhaps more than both put together.

The pandemic struck at a crucial juncture in the evolution of the understanding of the infectious disease. Well into the 19th century, epidemics were considered acts of god – a notion that dated back to the Middle Ages. Bacteria were first perceived in the 17th century but initially weren’t connected with human illnesses. In the late 1850s, the French biologist Louis Pasteur made the connection between micro-organisms and disease, and from a couple of decades, later German microbiologist Robert Koch advanced new concepts of infectious disease. ‘Germ theory’ was disseminated far and wide, slowly replacing more fatalistic ideas.

Spanish Flu Pandemic Ends

By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic arrived at an end, as those that were infected either died or developed an immunity.

Almost 90 years later, in 2008, researchers announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so dangerous: A group of three genes let the virus to reduce a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia.

Since 1918, there have been several other influenza pandemics, although none as deadly. A flu pandemic from 1957 to 1958 destroyed approximately 2 million people worldwide, including some 70,000 people in the United States, and a pandemic from 1968 to 1969 killed approximately 1 million people, including some 34,000 Americans.

Each of these modern-day pandemics draws renewed interest in and consideration to the Spanish Flu, or “forgotten pandemic,” so-named because its spread was overshadowed by the deadliness of WWI and covered up by news blackouts and poor record-keeping.

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