In the last several years I have noticed a lot of references in popular culture to the Flu Pandemic of 1918. A pandemic is an epidemic over a large geographic area, in this case, pretty much the entire world. This was a global disaster.
And this global disaster is used as a story device in books, movies and television. It undoubtedly says something about our culture that it often features in conspiracy theories and stories about terrorism. Generally these revolve around the idea that samples of the original virus have been kept by governments and can be reproduced and weaponized either by the government or by some other nefarious group.
I would never say definitively that there were never any secret hidden samples from the 1918 flu. From what I’ve read, there were some autopsy specimens from flu victims, not because they collected them in particular, but because the Army had been collecting autopsy specimens since the Civil War. Scientists were also able to find some well-preserved flu victims that had been buried in the permafrost in Alaska and were able to obtain some of the flu virus.
In 2005 scientists were able to successfully recreate the deadly strain. The purpose is to be able to study the virus in the hopes of being able to stop the next pandemic, which flu experts believe is coming soon.
So here’s a little information about the 1918 flu.
- Estimates are that 20-100 million people died worldwide, although recently the number most quoted is 50 million. That is an almost unimaginably large number. The entire population of California is only about 40 million.
- 1918 was the last year of World War I, so the massive troop movements, as well as people worn down by poor nutrition and fighting, were a factor in spreading the disease.
- No one knows for sure where this flu began. It’s often called the Spanish Flu, not because it came from Spain, but because the first media stories came from that country. Spain was a neutral during World War I, so did not have the same censorship rules as those countries that were involved.
- No one knows whether it started with birds, pigs or humans.
- Rather than infants and the elderly, this flu took the highest toll on those 20-40 years old.
- There was a shortage of medical professionals due to the deaths of doctors and nurses in the war and from the flu.
Part of the current interest is due to the fear that this can happen again. Research continues from scientists and historians because two major questions remain: where did it come from and why was it so lethal? Experts hope to find those answers in order to defend against the next pandemic.