Remembering the deadly Spanish Flu through rare photographs, 1918-1920

From January 1918 to December 1920, a deadly influenza outbreak infected 500 million people worldwide. It is estimated that 50 to 100 million people died from the virus, in other words, up to 5% of the planet's population. It killed more people than any other disease in recorded history, more than the total number of deaths in WWI.

The Spanish flu strain killed its victims in a way never seen before. The United States is full of stories of people getting sick and dying on the way to work.

The symptoms were gruesome: Victims would have a fever and have trouble breathing. The lack of oxygen meant that their faces appeared to be painted blue.

The hemorrhage filled the lungs with blood and caused catastrophic vomiting and nose bleeds, with victims drowning in their own fluids. Unlike so many types of influenza before it, the Spanish flu strikes not only the very young and the very old, but also healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

The major factor in the spread of the virus, of course, was the then international conflict which was in its final stages. Epidemiologists still dispute the exact origin of the virus, but there is some consensus that it was the result of a genetic mutation that probably occurred in China.

But what is clear is that the new tension became global thanks to the massive and rapid movement of troops around the world. The drama of the war also served to obscure the unusually high death rate of the new virus. In this early stage, the disease was not well understood and deaths were often attributed to pneumonia.

The two-year illness shortened the average American lifespan by 10 years overall. In an effort to contain the spread of the pandemic, many cities and entire countries imposed a complete ban on all public gatherings and travel.

Theatres, churches and other public places were closed for more than a year, and many funerals were limited to only 15 minutes. In fact, so many people had the virus that, in some places, everyday life effectively came to a halt.

Why "Spanish"? To maintain morale, wartime censors reduced early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

The papers were free to report the effects of the pandemic in neutral Spain (such as the serious illness of King Alfonso XIII). This created a false impression of Spain as a particularly hard hit, giving rise to the pandemic's nickname, the "Spanish flu".

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