The global flu pandemic of 1918 killed at least 50 million – but where did it start?

The horror of World War One is estimated to have caused between 15-20 million deaths mainly in Europe but, even before the war ended, a global flu pandemic in 1918-1919 resulted in a further death toll of between 50-100 million and infected around one third of the world’s entire population.

This week, BBC Two television broadcast a documentary titled “The Flu That Killed 50 Million”. At the time and historically, it has been called “the Spanish flu” with the implication that it started in Spain. In fact, the only reason that flu in Spain received so much attention was that the country was neutral in the war and there was no press censorship of the epidemic as there was in the warring nations.

The BBC programme put forward a more recent thesis that Patient Zero in the pandemic was in fact an American in Kansas called Albert Gitchell who contracted the disease from water fowl and then spread it unknowingly through his army camp. Army supply ships brought the flu from the USA to Europe and it rapidly spread throughout the globe. The worst affected country was actually India with some 17 million deaths. Only Australia escaped the scourge by a tight quarantine policy.

Could such a pandemic reoccur? Certainly, but we now know so much more about flu and how to treat it. In 1918-1919, some 3% of those infected died. The television programme suggested that today the maximum death rate would be 1%. ┬áSo that’s reassuring …


 




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