1918 Flu Pandemic: 100 Years Ago

As if we need any reminders about the flu vaccine, or thinking this flu season is worse than normal, it’s humbling to read about what the flu used to do:

The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus. It infected 500 million people around the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five percent of the world’s population), making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. :eek:

I have gotten the flu vaccine only the last 3 years and as far as I know I have not had the flu during that time - I have been sick, but not knocked-out (or dead, clearly). Anyway, if you can still get the shot it is probably worth it.

I understand that more US soldiers were killed by the flu in 1918 than died in combat.
I’ve taken the flu vaccine ever since I began taking medication for ankylosing spodilitis that reduces my immunity system.

The 1918 pandemic killed my uncle, who was an infant.

If you’ve ever had REAL influenza, you’ll never turn your nose up at the flu vaccine.

I read the flu vaccine is not as helpful this year. If I get the flu, I am gonna be mad. I try to stay away from places where it is running rampant. I volunteer at schools though, so I am a target. I have not had the flu in many years, knock on wood.

The issue with the Great Flu is that people drowned in their own immune response. The healthiest died.

When I was out in the car running errands this evening, I caught part of a documentary on the BBC World Service about the pandemic.

In one segment, the presenter said, “There are still a few living people who have memories of the pandemic. [Name that I can’t remember], of London, is an epidemiologist. At the age of 105, he’s still working.” They then aired a clip of an interview with the doctor.


Thanks for that reference. I looked it up and am listening to it now. Whoa.

Or watch this from PBS

The PBS flu show was rerun a few weeks ago and we watched it. They actually glossed over a lot of things.

My grandmother lost two siblings around that time. Not sure if it was the flu.

My grandfather’s unit was about to be shipped out to France when he came down with it. By the time he was well enough to rejoin them the war was over.

This epidemic affected a lot of people’s families.

The latest evidence suggests the vaccine is working about as well as last year’s - not great, but certainly better than wearing a mask and hoping for the best.

In the event that we experience a pandemic with an influenza strain as deadly as the 1918 version, antivaxers will probably argue that it’s a government plot to scare us into getting flu shots, and that we should all take vitamin D instead.

We watched it last week, as well. I hadn’t realized, until we started in, that it wasn’t a brand-new production; it’d originally aired 20 years ago.

In doing some reading, it sounds like, for one thing, the theory that the American Experience episode puts forward (that the outbreak first started at a Kansas army base) has since fallen out of favor.

For those interested in reading about it, I can recommend The Great Influenza by John Barry. Not to technical and easy to read but detailed enough to show how devastating the disease was. I’m sure there are many other books out there on the topic, but that is my recommendation.

I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but there may be benefit to getting enough vitamin D to help your immune system.

An interesting sequential thread. Barry advocates pretty strongly that the virus originated in a small town in Kansas, then popped up at the nearby Army base and spread around the world.

I read a virologist’s blog that claimed Barry made a lot of mistakes in explaining how viruses work. Maybe, but I agree with Rat. As a historical work, the book is outstanding.

I work in a hospital, although I am non-clinical. Flu shots are offered free of charge to all employees and volunteers, and soon will be made a condition of employment. Got mine, of course, and came down with a mild case on New Year’s Day. Temperature, chills, wracking cough. I was home from work a week, and 2 weeks later am finally feeling maybe back to normal. And this was a mild case. For my own health, there is never a reason not to get a flu shot. I also got a pneumonia vaccine and a shingles vaccine this fall.

My sister was just released from Vanderbilt hospital after spending over a week there, being treated by the infectious diseases department. Flu and pneumonia.


My company offers the flu shot in October to employee and spouses/partners at no cost, so it does not make any sense not to get one each year. Of course, there are people who question if the version we are getting for free is as good as those given elsewhere at some cost. I assume it is as good, but don’t really check into it. I am sure there are people who cannot afford, or want to spend the money to get the shot.

I wonder if the flu will ever be taken as seriously as something like smallpox, where a national, or multi-national effort will make vaccination compulsory and at no charge. I think in today’s anti-science and suspicion-based climate, something like that cannot happen again.

A couple of years ago when they were expecting an outbreak my wife wrote a book on the flu under contract. After the flu fizzled that year the publisher killed it, but she still got paid. So there is no silver lining without a cloud.

The reason that the flu in 1918 was called the Spanish flu was that its effects were considered a military secret, so the Spanish, who were neutrals, were the first to report on it.
They know a lot about it because they were able to get samples from people who died of it in Alaska, and whose bodies were preserved in the permafrost ever since 1918.

There was one town, in Colorado IIRC, which quarantined itself and in which no one ever got sick.

As j666 said, the healthier you were the worse you got it. The large numbers of healthy men in close proximity due to the war helped the flu spread faster.

I don’t see taking your vitamins and cod liver oil as “anti-vaxer”, anymore than drinking hot lemon tea to ease sinus head-aches. (Just don’t take echinacea in small doses prophylactically)

How would that work? Two different types of vaccines? Vaccine “seconds”? The first would significantly increase manufacturing costs, and the second is pointless - why not just sell blank media? I haven’t seen any numbers, but I am sure there is solid business sense behind minimizing absenteeism and even loss of employees by underwriting the cost of vaccines.

We just got back from the clinic. There are apparently two strains of flu making the rounds this year, A and B. SWMBO was diagnosed with B and given meds for it.

What I found astounding was that the diagnosis was made in about 3 minutes using a nasal swab. Medical science has come a long, long way since 1918.