Spanish Flu

appeared in Family Tree (UK) •  January 2010

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic  may have originated in the Far East, but the first recorded cases surfaced   at  a military base in Kansas, in the United States.   From there this highly infectious  Influenza-A (H1N1) virus   spread  to  other  bases across  the United States.

  When  American  troops  deployed to  Europe, the   flu travelled    with them.  Fueled by close quarters, massive  troop movements, and unsanitary field conditions,  it  quickly  struck   soldiers in the  trenches of France. From there   it  spread   to Spain and beyond.

During World War One, most European countries were subject to strict censorship. In Neutral Spain, however, newspapers freely reported where and when the disease struck.  So people, believing that that country alone was affected, dubbed the disease La Gripe Española  or Spanish Influenza.

This first   wave  of influenza   mimicked the common cold,  causing mild symptoms and few fatalities.  Its victims were mainly the sick and  elderly around the world.

It  first reached  the UK  in May 1918. From Glasgow, it followed   transportation and communication routes  southward, reaching  London  a month later.   As  it progressed, it became more and more virulent.

A second wave, a deadly mutation of the first,  circled  the world again  from  September  through  November.    This time, to everyone’s horror,    it      targeted    healthy young adults. These 20 to 40 year olds,  those who     bore  children,  laboured in   factories, and  fought  wars, were the backbone of the nation.

Victims suffered   severe sore throats,  headaches, chills, high fever,   and  overwhelming fatigue.  Some  also endured    massive hemorrhaging , vomiting, and violent coughing. Those who    contracted  bacterial  pneumonia, a secondary infection,  suffered  cyanosis, a lack of oxygen that turned  their   skin  turned a  terrifying shade of  bluish-black.    The disease was swift. Those  who arose hale and hearty  at dawn  could be dead by tea-time.

Many British councils, desperate to contain its progress,   sprayed their streets with chemicals,  ordered  their citizens to wear masks,  and forbid spitting and coughing in public.     As the disease continued to spread,  theatres, dance halls, churches,  and other public-gathering places were closed.  If cinemas,     small and generally crowded with children, were  left open, they were  emptied     every few hours for ventilation.  School closures  were left to  the discretion of local authorities  in most parts of the country.  In London, however, they were closed only when  their teachers fell ill.

Since its cause was unclear,   people adopted   a variety of preventive measures. The  November 3, 1918  issue  of   News of the World suggested  “Wash inside [your] nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work.”   For good measure, evidently believing that stick-to-your-ribs carbohydrates would  build resistance, the editors    added, “ Eat plenty of porridge.”

Some sprinkled that  porridge  liberally with  cinnamon, which was valued for its     medicinal  properties.  Some  ate  prophylactic  raw onions or,   for some reason,  carried potatoes in their pockets.   Others, to build resistance,   sipped   cups of cocoa or   Oxo, a nourishing beef beverage.   Some desperate souls even   downed  lumps of sugar dipped in kerosene.

Many, on the chance that influenza was caused  by germs,  washed up with Lifebuoy soap,  laced    their drinking water with    tincture of iodine,  gargled  with salt solution, and disinfected  everything else   with germicides.  Those  fearful of  air-born contamination     hung camphor balls around their necks  or carried handkerchiefs  imbued with    ammonia vapors or  volatile oils like eucalyptus. Some  even  kept incandescent gas burners alight  day and night. Others, convinced  that tobacco fumes offered protection, nursed  cigarettes and pipes.

Despite all these precautions, however,  the flu flourished.  As  Britain  was  struggling to cope with wartime disruptions in industry and  public services, as  its populace was  nursing its ill and  mourning its  dead and missing, military ships  were returning   infected troops into its  midst.

The country’s  health care services   began to buckle under the strain.   “Doctors and client queues are the order of the day. People wait and sneeze, “ noted the Daily Mirror on October 23, 1918.    Nurses, doctors, and chemists, working feverishly,    eventually succumbed  in large numbers, leaving   their chemist  shops,  dispensaries and overcrowded surgeries understaffed.     Although medical schools   posted  senior students to  the  wards,  at the time there was no known treatment against the flu  nor  antibiotics to treat  its secondary complications.  So they could offer  no help.

The fabric of society unraveled further.   As people lost family members, depression  rose and   suicides soared.  As scores of  policemen  were stricken,  murders,  some reputedly committed under “influenza-induced delirium,” soared too.

As  the dead multiplied,  burial also posed a serious problem.  Not only  was there a dearth of coffins, but many gravediggers  had fallen victim too.   Morgues filled with scores of dead bodies,  stacked up  like cords of wood.    Many  communities, having little alternative,  organized mass burials.

As  World War One drew to a close in November 1918, the public    celebrated   the return of their servicemen with parties, parades, hugs, and kisses.  This close  physical contact initiated  the  third  wave of  the Spanish Flu.  Though  it    lingered  through spring 1919,   this last strain  proved far less lethal than  its predecessor.   Eventually  the Spanish Flu disappeared altogether.

All told, the 1918-19 Spanish Influenza Pandemic  infected  nearly a third of the world’s population, killing anywhere between 50 to 100 million people.    In Britain, as many as 250,000 people lost their lives.

Despite its widespread devastation,  the Spanish Flu has largely faded from human memory.  This may be because obituaries of  fallen soldiers and influenza fatalities  appeared side by side in British  newspapers. Perhaps   the public,    linked  the two  together. Perhaps they  experienced    influenza losses as  an extension of  the war, instead of  a separate tragedy.

Still, memories of  this scourge   have  not faded entirely.  Like the popular children’s rhyme, “Ring Around O’ Rosie,”  which is   commonly  associated with the Great Plague  of London,  the  Spanish Flu too  lives on in  a  jump-rope chant, once popular among British children.

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened a window
And In-flu-enza.