Spanish flu - the devastating pandemic of the last century

The earliest records of the influenza-like illnesses dates back to 412 BC when large numbers of people died in Athens due the disease. The first documented epidemic spread across the continents of Africa and Europe in the year of 1580, and nearly seven decades later the influenzahas killed thousands in the Caribbean region and in New-England. There were three worldwide influenza pandemics during the eighteenth century and four during the nineteenth century, which have caused big sufferings to humanity, as well as to the economy in that time.

Spanish flu

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The influenza viruses are specified by the proteins of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. The first detected virus strain, which was preserved in the year of 1927, originated from birds, the next from pigs in 1931 and the last from humans in 1933.The influenza variant, which isolated from humans, is the variant "A" which was followed by the variants of "B" and "C" within the next few years. According to Sir Christopher Andres, who took part in the discovery of the influenza, the virus can incubate for a time after the epidemic and it can also become active by effects of different inducements. The influenza virus strains can differ in their frequency, the period of their virulence ability and the species that they can infect.

The fearful influenza "A" virus causes widespread epidemics, the "B" variant causes smaller local epidemics and the C variant is accountable for individual cases. Differently dangerous variants of the influenza can form, which can be originated from animals and living in birds and mammals and proliferate in humans as well. The specialty of the virus that causes influenza "A" variants in different species is that they can exchange their genes with each other, and in this way they are able to mutate easily and its emergence and spread is not seasonal. Worldwide influenza pandemics usually occur within every 40-60 years.

The deathly illness, which was highly contagious and named Spanish flu, was an especially virulent strain of the "H1N1", one of the subtypes of the "A" variant influenza virus. The lethal disease spread across the continents in two waves at the beginning of the 20th century and infected a quarter of the whole population of the world, broadly 500 million people, in that time.

The Spanish flu, which was the most devastating biological disaster of the 20th century, caused more deaths during the epidemic of 1918-1920 than the First World War. In most cases, haemorrhagic pneumonia has developed by the disease, which led to death within hours. The illness caused death in an unusually large rate in the age between 20 and 40. The number of casualties of the most serious influenza pandemic of history were around 40 and 50 millions from January 1918 to December 1920, but according to roughly estimations it caused one hundred millions of deaths worldwide.

The reason of the success of the Spanish flu, which spread across the whole world, was that the vaccine researches were just on the rise in the post-world war age one hundred years ago. That time the science of virology was young, too, and this destructive pathogen was thought to be of a bacterial origin for a long time. Only after ten years of the Spanish flu pandemic was it discovered by English scientists that the influenza is a virus and the first successful vaccine attempts were carried out in the end of the 1930’s.

It is still debated nowadays which is the area where the influenza virus originated from. Many scientists say that the Spanish flu came from East-Asia, but others think that the starting point of the pathogen is located in Austria, according to battlefield reports. However, we can find the first documented infection in Kansas country, in the USA. In the old day of March 11, 1918 Albert Gitchell, who was the cook in the military base of Fort Riley, complained to the camp doctor about symptoms like colds, and 522 soldiers got sick within the next few days in the camp. On the other hand, the Spanish flu reached the borders of New York City in that time.

Now we know the deathly key of this lethal virus to be murdering effectively was that it triggered extreme immune reactions in the lung tissue after the infection. It caused hemorrhagic pneumonia, pulmonary oedema and death by shortness of breath in infected people and it is also an important remark that the pathogen murdered in a high ratio in the group of young and strong men and women. It is also a known fact about the H1N1 that the most common flu cases are partly responsible for this virus, and the diseases can be successfully prevented with the three-component vaccine, which was developed against it and can be repeated annually.

It is another unique feature of the Spanish flu that it had three spreading waves within a year. In cases of other influenza pandemics in the past, such as the pandemic of 1889-1890 there was an 8-9 months long pause between the waves. According to old stories people who were infected in the first wave of the Spanish flu had a relative immunity against the disease during the second infection wave, and this assumption is supported by the Spanish statistics, too.

The disease has quickly evolved into hemorrhagic pneumonia in many cases, so in this way numerous people died within a few hours. This type of viral pneumonia especially plagued the people who were in the age between 20 and 40 years. Some research groups explain this phenomenon by saying that the immune systems of the victims overreacted the infection and destroyed their own lung tissues. It can be summarized by all available data that the half of the deaths belonged to this age group.Another feature of the Spanish flu was that, it was more dangerous for people under the age of 65 years than for those above, so 99% of the victims were younger.

The cause of death of the people in older age or who were suffering by chronic illnesses or metabolic diseases was largely due to a secondary or bacterial pneumonia. A possible explanation is that the flu pandemic of 1889 immunized the population at that time thus their immune systems could adapt better to overcome the disease.We cannot accurately declare the lethality of Spanish flu, because of the absence of accurate data. In any case, scientist say it is at least 2,5%, compared with 0,1% of lethality of the common flu.

The deathly disease spread not only in North America but in Europe, too, however it got less attention there. South America, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Island were also affected by the pandemic. Five from every one hundred infected people died in India, which was a particularly high mortality rate. The spreading of the virus was fuelled by the fleeing of people to the big cities from the countryside where they suffered from hunger. They hoped for better care there, but under but because of the density of the population in the big cities, the chances of being infected were particularly high.

Based on integrated data and estimates the casualties of the pandemic were 50,000 people in Canada, 250,000 people in Great-Britain, 300,000 people in Brazil, 390,000 in Japan and 400,000 in France. The Spanish flu caused the deaths of 675,000 people in the United States of America, where whole Native American and Eskimo villages became empty as a result of the epidemic. The new virus made its largest devastation in the Middle-Eastern and Far-Easternregions. In Indonesia circa 1,500,000 people died, and other 2,500,000 in Iran died because of the Spanish flu. In India alone, 17,000,000 people died from the infection, which number is more than the whole casualties of the First World War.

The fact that there could have been up to 100 million victims of the Spanish flu essentially means that nobody could escape from it. Irrespective of rank, education, social status, the disease murdered the infected people. There could be a long list of celebrities, politicians, and artistscountry by country, who died affected by the pandemic.

Here are some notable victims, who died due to the Spanish flu:

- Edmond Rostand - French poet

- Guillaume Apollinaire - French poet

- EgonSchiele - Austrian painter

- Max Weber - German sociologist, philosopher, economist

- Gustav Klimt - Austrian painter

- BohumilKubišta - Czech painter

- Margit Kaffka - Hungarian writer and poet

- Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves - Brazilian re-elected president

- Felix Arndt - American pianist

- Louis Botha -The first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa

- Rose Cleveland - The First Lady of the United States of America

- Harold Lockwood - American silent film star

- OyamaSutematsu - The first Japanese woman to receive a college degree

- YakovSverdlov - Bolshevik party leader and official of the Russian Republic

- Mark Sykes - British politician and diplomat

- Frederick Trump - German–American businessman and patriarch of the Trump family

- Prince Umberto - Count of Salemi, member of the Italian royal family

Fortunately many famous and important people healed from the disease and could continue his work, here is some example:

- Raymond Chandler - American novel writer

- Walt Disney - American cartoonist genius

- Greta Garbo - Swedish actress

- Szilárd Leó - Hungarian nuclear physicist

- Franklin D. Roosewelt - President of the United States of America

- Friedrich Hayek - Austrian economist

- Franz Kafka - German-speaking Jewish author

- Edvard Munch - Norwegian painter

- H.G. Wells - English writer

- Woodrow Wilson - President of the United States of America

- Alexandrine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin - Queen of Denmark

- Robert Graves - English poet

Jim Jordan - American actor

Donát Novák

March 2020