The influenza outbreak of 1918 has been cited as the most devastating pandemic in recorded world history. What began as a simple case of flu in a military camp in Kansas, ultimately spread around the world to claim more lives that World War I, from 50 million to 100 million people according to estimates. To put it in perspective, John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, points out: "Spanish influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century. It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years."
How Did it Happen?:
The great influenza outbreak of 1918 began rather innocuously on the morning of March 11, 1918, according to many experts, at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas. A company cook named Albert Mitchell reported to the infirmary with typical flu-like symptoms - a low-grade fever, mild sore throat and muscle aches. Bed rest was recommended. By noon, 107 soldiers were sick.
Close quarters and mass movements of troops resulting from World War One quickened the spread of this fast-killing virus. By April it had reached France. Within seven days, it had spread across the United States. By April it had spread across the Atlantic to France, China and Japan. By May it was sweeping through Africa and South America. Ultimately an estimated 50 million people worldwide died from the influenza and its resulting pneumonia.
[blockquote shade="no"]"In some cases the dead were left in their homes for days. Private undertaking houses were overwhelmed, and some were taking advantage of the situation by hiking prices as much as 600 percent. Complaints were made that cemetery officials were charging fifteen dollar burial fees and then making the bereaved dig the graves for their dead themselves."
-- Alfred Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918
Where Did it Come From?:
Recent studies conducted on tissue preserved from victims of the 1918 flu virus have concluded that the deadly outbreak was caused by a bird flu that jumped directly to humans. Like all viral influenza, the origin of the 1918 strain was Asian.
Also Called Spanish Flu:
Some people referred to the great influenza epidemic as Spanish Flu, or even the Spanish Lady, primarily because it received greater press coverage in Spain than the rest of the world, due to most countries censoring wartime news reports that could be seen as valuable to the enemy. Although it did not originate there, the influenza outbreak went on to kill an estimated eight million people in Spain.