The 1918 Flu Pandemic
One of the most virulent strains of influenza in history ravaged the world and decimated the populations around the world. Present during World War I, the 1918 strain of pandemic influenza found many opportunities to spread through the war. At the time, science wasn’t advanced enough to study the virus, much less find a cure; medical personnel were helpless when it came to fighting the disease, and so the flu went on to infect millions and kill at a rate 25 times higher than the standard.
For long before the 1918 pandemic, doctors had been trying to isolate the microorganism that causes influenza. In 1892, one man, Dr. Friedrich Johann Pfeiffer, believed he had the answer. His discovery, Pfeiffer’s bacillus or Hemophilus influenzae, was widely known as the culprit. However, during the first wave of the 1918 pandemic, doctors lost faith in Pfeiffer’s bacillus. They searched for it in patients, but rarely found it. In the second wave, the bacterium was present in many, but by no means all, cases of Spanish flu. If it was the cause of influenza, it should have been present in all cases (Kolata, Flu 64-65).
Since then, doctors have isolated the virus responsible for the killer flu. Luckily, doctors working during the pandemic had preserved slices of lung from two soldiers, which were stored in a warehouse. The third sample came from a woman in Alaska, whose lungs were preserved from being buried in the permafrost (Kolata, Flu 29-33). Scientists reconstructed the virus by finding its genetic sequence, and they then tested the newly resurrected virus on lab mice and human lung cells. What they discovered was that the 1918 flu was nothing like the more contemporary pandemic strains from the 50s and 60s. The 1918 strain wasn’t human flu, but bird flu that is related to today’s H5N1 strain. However, unlike the current bird flu, the 1918 flu could
be spread person-to-person and was extremely contagious (Kolata, “Experts Unlock Clues to Spread of 1918 Virus”).
The first wave of the 1918 pandemic appeared in San Sebastián, Spain. Within two months, 8 million of Spain’s residents were ill, and the disease had spread on a global scale. Soon it became known as the Spanish flu, because it received the most press there. The other nations had their media tied up with wartime censorship; Spain, a noncombatant, had no such measures in place (Kolata, Flu 9-10). The first wave of the 1918 pandemic appeared in America without much comment. The media was more interested in attention-grabbing news about topics like the war than the rather unremarkable flu. Most people were afflicted with symptoms for a few days before recovering and moving on. The only aspect of the flu that was remarkable was the condition of the lungs from the victims who had died from the flu and pneumonia (Crosby 17-21).
The graphs of the deaths due to the spring flu revealed that it had the Spanish flu’s distinct “W” shaped curve. While normal human flu...