In 1918, the world was in the grip of World War I. As destructive as that war was, people were unprepared for yet another wave of trauma and death-the great influenza.
It was known as the “Spanish Flu” but it actually began in a U.S. Army camp in Kansas and spread to Europe through infected soldiers serving overseas. The illness was swift-A perfectly healthy person could literally be crippled and near death within hours. One doctor serving at an Army camp in Boston wrote: “It is only a matter of a few hours until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.”
The disease forced whole cities to shut down. Between 50-100 million people died worldwide.
Victims of a New War
According to the book The Great Influenza by John Barry, “[The flu] killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century.” Shockingly, this particular strain targeted healthy people between 20 and 40 years old, rather than children and the elderly-the usual flu victims. Scientists today believe that’s because the virus, up against a strong immune system, launched a particularly vicious attack.
The Spanish Flu was also known as the “Blue Flu” because victims’ faces turned blue-so dark, in fact, that “many observers misjudged it for the return of Black Death,” reported Jim Duffy in the Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine. Scientists now know the resulting color was due to suffocation; patients literally drowned as their lungs filled with fluid.
The Right Time to Strike
Because doctors were unsure how to manage the disease, the public took matters into its own hands. Handshakes were outlawed, children were kept home from school, and those caught sneezing in public were fined or imprisoned. People took to wearing face masks when they left the house, and the virus even spawned cautionary limericks like:
By 1919, the virus had disappeared altogether. Researchers are unsure what brought about its end, but they’ve used the virus to research ways to combat today’s deadly H5N1 flu, also known as “Bird Flu”, which scientists think might soon cause the next pandemic.
Viruses Under the Microscope
In October 2005, scientists revealed that they had reconstructed the genetic sequence of the Spanish Flu. “This is huge, huge, huge,” said John Oxford, professor of virology at St. Bartholomew’s and the Royal London Hospital, to the New York Times. “I can’t think of anything bigger that’s happened in virology for many years.” Scientists hope that by decoding the genetic sequence, they can learn what makes this particular virus so deadly and protect the world from a serious health crisis.