While the world is going through a ‘pandemic’, it is not the first.
The first recorded was typhus in ancient Athens where approximately 100,000 people died. Then, in Europe, the Black Death plague in four short years killed between 75 to 200 million people.
To understand an influenza pandemic, it is a global outbreak of a new influenza A virus that is very different from current and recently circulating human seasonal influenza A viruses. The flu virus is highly contagious. When an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, respiratory droplets are generated and transmitted into the air and can then can be inhaled by anyone nearby.
Following World War I (the Great War), the Spanish flu struck with a vengeance killing between 20 and 50 million people globally. It was the first real world-wide disaster that left the world in a tumultuous shock of pandemic.
The first wave of the virus wasn’t particularly deadly, with symptoms such as high fever and a general feeling of unwell usually lasting only three days, and mortality rates were similar to seasonal flu. Cases of Spanish flu actually declined over the summer of 1918 and there was hope at the beginning of August that the virus had run its course. It was however, the calm before the storm. Somewhere in Europe, a mutated strain of the Spanish flu virus emerged that had the power to kill a perfectly healthy young man or woman within 24 hours of showing the first signs of infection.
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In late August 1918, the second wave of the global pandemic began with troops carrying the virus. From September through November of 1918, the death rate from the Spanish flu skyrocketed. The Spanish flu exhibited what’s called a “W curve”—high numbers of deaths among the young and old, but also a huge spike in the middle composed of otherwise healthy 25- to 35-year-olds in the prime of their life.
The flu was spread through bodily fluids and moved quickly through the population. The flu presented itself through fatigue and cough, but quickly attacked the body, creating mucous build-up in the lungs that could not be expelled.
Lack of quarantines allowed the flu to spread and grow. It was wartime and all were encouraged to keep working in factories and there was a severe nursing shortage as thousands of nurses had been deployed to military camps and the front lines. In addition, science simply didn’t have the tools to deal with, or develop a vaccine, for the virus.
By December 1918, the deadly second wave of the Spanish flu had finally passed, but the pandemic was far from over. A third wave erupted in Australia in January 1919 and the mortality rate of the third wave globally was just as high as the second wave.
In an attempt to halt the spread of the disease, many local governments shut down non-essential services. Provinces imposed quarantines and protective masks were required in public places. The epidemic led directly to the formation of the federal Department of Health in 1919.
According to the Centres for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC), “… the 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.”
Today, with COVID-19, Public Health officials are urging people to pay heed to their instructions and their warnings. The World Health Organization (WHO) today put out a statement not only how to protect yourself physically but also how to protect your mental health in this time of extreme stress when social distancing isolation and quarantine are strongly advised.
Note by the Author: My own Great-grandmother died in the 1918 influenza in the Ottawa Valley