The Pandemic that Killed 50 Million

This image shows members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps attentively helping during the pandemic of 1918.

via Flickr

This image shows members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps attentively helping during the pandemic of 1918.

In 1918, an estimated 500 million people, or almost one-third of the world’s population at the time, caught influenza, also known as the Spanish Flu. With between 50 million and 100 million people passing away worldwide, it was the deadliest flu outbreak in recorded history. Between 1917 and 1918, 675,000 people died in the United States alone, and the average life expectancy decreased by nearly 12 years. 


Because of World War I, the virus spread swiftly, with soldiers in close quarters spreading the disease to one another and subsequently spreading the disease far and wide. There was no vaccination yet to protect against infection at the time, and the first licensed flu vaccine didn’t arrive in the United States until the 1940s, and there was no antiviral treatment to treat it once it had been contracted. The only things people could do to try and avoid catching the disease were to wash their hands, isolate themselves, avoid public places, and quarantine the sick. To try to slow the spread of the disease, residents were also required to wear masks, and many schools, theaters, and businesses were closed. A law was passed in New York City that made it legal for those who didn’t cover their coughs to be fined or imprisoned. The initial wave of the 1918 pandemic struck in spring and was considered moderate, but a second, much deadlier wave struck later that fall. Some patients died just hours or days after exhibiting symptoms. Hospitals were overburdened to the point where schools, private residences, and other structures had to be used as makeshift hospitals. Due to a lack of doctors as a result of the war, medical students occasionally stepped in to treat patients. There were insufficient farmers to harvest crops or laborers to collect rubbish and carry mail in other areas since so many people became ill.


Scientists of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now know that the H1N1 virus caused the 1918 influenza pandemic. According to a study published in Emerging Infectious Disease, the epidemic subsided by the summer of 1919, the H1N1 virus persisted for another 38 years, and all influenza A pandemics after 1918 have been caused by mutations of that same 1918 virus. Since 1918, there have been other flu pandemics, but none have been as destructive. This is largely owing to significant breakthroughs in our understanding and treatment of the influenza virus. One hundred fourteen countries are currently part of a global influenza surveillance system. Every year, seasonal flu vaccines are available to help protect people from becoming ill, and antiviral medications are also available. Antibiotics can also be used to treat secondary infections, like pneumonia.


To conclude, the World Health Organization estimates that the seasonal flu infects three to five million people each year and kills between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide. That’s why it’s critical to get the vaccine every year and to take other precautions, such as staying home from work or school when sick, to reduce the danger of the disease spreading to others.