With everything that’s happened due to COVID-19, many people are looking to the 1918 pandemic for answers. As the last major worldwide pandemic, the 1918 pandemic offers some insight in an otherwise unprecedented time.
What can we learn from the Spanish flu of 1918? Studying a historic pandemic can help us anticipate what we might be able expect from COVID-19. It can also help us see what worked last time the world was faced with something similar.
1918 Flu Pandemic History
At the end of World War I, the world encountered a new threat: the Spanish flu. What was it that made the Spanish flu so severe? Where did it come from, and how did it start?
Where Did the Spanish Flu Start?
It might surprise you to learn that the Spanish flu didn’t actually start in Spain. In reality, it could have started in any number of countries. Scientists have traced it back to France, China, Great Britain, and the United States, but its exact origin is still unknown.
So why was it called the “Spanish flu”? The answer goes back to politics. Many world powers at the time were involved in World War I, and leaders didn’t want news of the flu to demoralize troops. Spain, on the other hand, managed to remain a neutral force and freely reported news of the influenza.
To the world, it looked like Spain was the epicenter of the pandemic. Spain instead believed that it originated in France and dubbed it the “French flu.”
What Caused the Spanish Flu?
Experts believe that the Spanish flu evolved from a bird flu, making it possible for birds to transmit the disease to humans. Its evolution allowed it to spread through droplets in the air caused by coughing, sneezing, breathing, and talking.
The Spanish flu has this in common with other pandemics in the last century. The Asian flu in 1957 mutated from a strain found in ducks, the Hong Kong flu of 1968 may have evolved from viruses infecting birds and pigs, and the swine flu in 2009 mutated from viruses found in pig herds. COVID-19 also may have evolved from animal viruses likely found in bats.
How Long Did the 1918 Pandemic Last?
The 1918 pandemic began in the spring of 1918 and lasted through the summer of 1919, roughly 18 months total. In that time, there were three major waves of the pandemic. The first wave happened in the spring of 1918 when the virus was introduced. The second and most severe wave occurred in the fall of 1918. The third and final wave lasted through the winter and spring months of 1919.
Scientists anticipate similar waves throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in December 2019, with the first wave of the pandemic hitting in the winter and spring months of 2020.
A Time Line of the 1918 Pandemic
Below are major events that took place during the 1918 pandemic:
On March 4, the world's first official case of the flu is recorded in Camp Funston, Kansas, USA. One hundred other soldiers at the camp have symptoms within a day, and there are over 500 cases at the camp within a week. Throughout March, cases also begin appearing elsewhere in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
April 1918–May 1918
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers deploy to Europe for World War I. Cases spread through France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain. It later reaches Russia, North Africa, India, and Japan.
June 1918–July 1918
Outbreaks occur in China, Brazil, the South Pacific, and Australia. By July, the first wave begins to recede.
September 1918–November 1918
The second and most severe wave of the virus emerges. Global troop mobilization encourages the spread. Medical staff and resources are overwhelmed worldwide. Governments start implementing safety precautions, such as requiring masks, closing public spaces, and requesting personal sanitization.
World War I ends, and people around the world celebrate. Public celebrations and soldiers returning home enable further spread of the flu.
January 1919–June 1919
The third wave of the pandemic begins. This wave is less severe than the second and gradually tapers off, marking the end of the pandemic.
How Many People Died from the Spanish Flu in 1918?
While it’s hard to know exactly how many people died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, most experts estimate between 17 and 50 million people died. Some experts even think the numbers may have been as high as 100 million.
What Was the Death Rate of the Spanish Flu 1918 Pandemic?
The Spanish flu killed somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of the global population, with most estimates putting the global death rate at roughly 2.5 or 3 percent. As many as 500 million people were infected with the Spanish flu, approximately a third of the world’s population at the time. With most experts estimating 17 to 50 million deaths total, the death rate of those infected may have been around 3.4 to 10 percent.
Who Did the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Affect?
The Spanish flu affected children and young adults more than any other age demographic. Why would young adults, who have stronger immune systems, be hit so hard? Recent research suggests that a young adult’s strong immune system is precisely why the 1918 pandemic proved fatal for them.
The particular strain of the flu that caused the 1918 pandemic elicits an especially strong immune reaction that leads to severe inflammation and fluid buildup. As a result, pneumonia and other secondary infections were more likely in young adults, whose immune reaction would have been stronger.
In contrast, COVID-19 typically affects children and young adults less than other demographics. Instead, it has hit the elderly and those with weakened immune systems particularly hard.
How Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Compare with the Spanish Flu Pandemic?
The 1918 pandemic was the result of a perfect storm. The influenza strain itself spread quickly and proved to be particularly fatal. On top of that, many countries withheld information from the public to support efforts in World War I in addition to sending soldiers around the world and increasing worldwide spread. Flu vaccines had not yet been introduced, and antiviral and antibacterial treatments were limited. All of this worked together to heighten the impact of the Spanish flu.
In contrast, COVID-19 has been widely reported in many places around the world, making it easier for the masses to stay informed on safety procedures, locations to avoid, and the number of active cases. Scientists have also jumped headfirst into researching vaccines, mask effectiveness, risk factors, and new treatments, all in an effort to keep people safe.
In addition, there aren’t currently millions of soldiers traveling the world and spreading the virus. While global travel is more accessible and common today than it was in 1918, many countries quickly implemented travel restrictions, helping to limit the spread.
Leaders also took notes from the 1918 pandemic and applied them to our situation. If you’ve heard “flatten the curve” or “social distance,” you can likely thank the Spanish flu for those safety precautions. In 1918, cities across the United States used different precautions when the Spanish flu came knocking. Researchers found that cities such as St. Louis, Missouri, that required social distancing were able to avoid large spikes in cases like those that overwhelmed hospitals in other cities. Many countries and states today have implemented similar practices to accomplish the same success.
Other changes since 1918 have helped better prepare the world for COVID-19. For one thing, treatments of secondary bacterial infections have drastically improved. Scientists around the world also have better resources than ever to study and produce new treatments and vaccines. Additionally, hygiene and living conditions as a whole have improved.
What Can We Learn from the 1918 Pandemic?
Although the current pandemic can at times be overwhelming and scary, the world is far better prepared to handle it than it was 100 years ago. While COVID-19 is an entirely different beast than the Spanish flu, many strides are being taken to reduce COVID-19’s impact—and one day, like the Spanish flu, it will no longer impact daily life.
Is the Spanish Flu Still around Today?
The 1918 pandemic ended in 1919, likely due to the sheer number of people infected and a resulting higher level of herd immunity. Flu viruses—and therefore flu vaccines—had not yet been discovered. Today, different strands of the 1918 Spanish flu still circulate. Seasonal flu vaccines that have been available since the 1940s help protect against it as well as higher levels of immunity toward it.
This outlook certainly provides hope that COVID-19 will similarly disperse, but only time will tell. Hopefully, the introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine along with higher levels of immunity will level off the effects in coming months.
A Look to the Future
Learning about how the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic affected the lives of those who lived through it has helped people around the world understand and gain emotional fortitude while facing the effects of COVID-19. You almost certainly have ancestors who lived through the 1918 pandemic. Research an ancestor who lived during 1918–19. Then explore their FamilySearch Memories to see what you can learn about their experiences.
You can also use FamilySearch Memories to share how COVID-19 has impacted your life. This will help preserve those experiences for future generations. Our response to the pandemic will undoubtedly help shape the response to future outbreaks, just as the Spanish flu helped to shape our response to COVID-19. Sharing your experiences can also help you connect with, support, and draw strength from others experiencing similar situations and emotions right now.
What have you experienced during the pandemic? How did the Spanish flu impact your ancestors?