100 years ago, an influenza (flu) pandemic swept the globe, infecting an estimated one-third of the world’s population and killing at least 50 million people. The pandemic’s death toll was greater than the total number of military and civilian deaths from World War I, which was happening simultaneously. At the time, scientists had not yet discovered flu viruses, but we know today that the 1918 pandemic was caused by an influenza A (H1N1) virus. The pandemic is commonly believed to have occurred in three waves. Unusual flu-like activity was first identified in U.S. military personnel during the spring of 1918. Flu spread rapidly in military barracks where men shared close quarters. The second wave occurred during the fall of 1918 and was the most severe. A third wave of illness occurred during the winter and spring of 1919.
Here are 5 things you should know about the 1918 pandemic and why it matters 100 years later.
1. The 1918 Flu Virus Spread Quickly
500 million people were estimated to have been infected by the 1918 H1N1 flu virus. At least 50 million people were killed around the world including an estimated 675,000 Americans. In fact, the 1918 pandemic actually caused the average life expectancy in the United States to drop by about 12 years for both men and women.
In 1918, many people got very sick, very quickly. In March of that year, outbreaks of flu-like illness were first detected in the United States. More than 100 soldiers at Camp Funston in Fort Riley Kansas became ill with flu. Within a week, the number of flu cases quintupled. There were reports of some people dying within 24 hours or less. 1918 flu illness often progressed to organ failure and pneumonia, with pneumonia the cause of death for most of those who died. Young adults were hit hard. The average age of those who died during the pandemic was 28 years old.
2. No Prevention and No Treatment for the 1918 Pandemic Virus
In 1918, as scientists had not yet discovered flu viruses, there were no laboratory tests to detect, or characterize these viruses. There were no vaccines to help prevent flu infection, no antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with flu infections. Available tools to control the spread of flu were largely limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI’s) such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limits on public gatherings, which were used in many cities. The science behind these was very young, and applied inconsistently. City residents were advised to avoid crowds, and instructed to pay particular attention to personal hygiene. In some cities, dance halls were closed. Some streetcar conductors were ordered to keep the windows of their cars open in all but rainy weather. Some municipalities moved court cases outside. Many physicians and nurses were instructed to wear gauze masks when with flu patients.
3. Illness Overburdened the Health Care System
An estimated 195,000 Americans died during October alone. In the fall of 1918, the United States experienced a severe shortage of professional nurses during the flu pandemic because large numbers of them were deployed to military camps in the United States and abroad. This shortage was made worse by the failure to use trained African American nurses. The Chicago chapter of the American Red Cross issued an urgent call for volunteers to help nurse the ill. Philadelphia was hit hard by the pandemic with more than 500 corpses awaiting burial, some for more than a week. Many parts of the U.S. had been drained of physicians and nurses due to calls for military service, so there was a shortage of medical personnel to meet the civilian demand for health care during the 1918 flu pandemic. In Massachusetts, for example, Governor McCall asked every able-bodied person across the state with medical training to offer their aid in fighting the outbreak.
As the numbers of sick rose, the Red Cross put out desperate calls for trained nurses as well as untrained volunteers to help at emergency centers. In October of 1918, Congress approved a $1 million budget for the U. S. Public Health Service to recruit 1,000 medical doctors and more than 700 registered nurses.
At one point in Chicago, physicians were reporting a staggering number of new cases, reaching as high as 1,200 people each day. This in turn intensified the shortage of doctors and nurses. Additionally, hospitals in some areas were so overloaded with flu patients that schools, private homes and other buildings had to be converted into makeshift hospitals, some of which were staffed by medical students.
4. Major Advancements in Flu Prevention and Treatment since 1918
The science of influenza has come a long way in 100 years! Developments since the 1918 pandemic include vaccines to help prevent flu, antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia, and a global influenza surveillance system with 114 World Health Organization member states that constantly monitors flu activity. There also is a much better understanding of non-pharmaceutical interventions–such as social distancing, respiratory and cough etiquette and hand hygiene–and how these measures help slow the spread of flu.
There is still much work to do to improve U.S. and global readiness for the next flu pandemic. More effective vaccines and antiviral drugs are needed in addition to better surveillance of influenza viruses in birds and pigs. CDC also is working to minimize the impact of future flu pandemics by supporting research that can enhance the use of community mitigation measures (i.e., temporarily closing schools, modifying, postponing, or canceling large public events, and creating physical distance between people in settings where they commonly come in contact with one another). These non-pharmaceutical interventions continue to be an integral component of efforts to control the spread of flu, and in the absence of flu vaccine, would be the first line of defense in a pandemic.
5. Risk of a Flu Pandemic is Ever-Present, but CDC is on the Frontlines Preparing to Protect Americans
Four pandemics have occurred in the past century: 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009. The 1918 pandemic was the worst of them. But the threat of a future flu pandemic remains. A pandemic flu virus could emerge anywhere and spread globally.
CDC works tirelessly to protect Americans and the global community from the threat of a future flu pandemic. CDC works with domestic and global public health and animal health partners to monitor human and animal influenza viruses. This helps CDC know what viruses are spreading, where they are spreading, and what kind of illnesses they are causing. CDC also develops and distributes tests and materials to support influenza testing at state, local, territorial, and international laboratories so they can detect and characterize influenza viruses. In addition, CDC assists global and domestic experts in selecting candidate viruses to include in each year’s seasonal flu vaccine and guides prioritization of pandemic vaccine development. CDC routinely develops vaccine viruses used by manufacturers to make flu vaccines. CDC also supports state and local governments in preparing for the next flu pandemic, including planning and leading pandemic exercises across all levels of government. An effective response will diminish the potential for a repeat of the widespread devastation of the 1918 pandemic.
Visit CDC’s 1918 commemoration website for more information on the 1918 pandemic and CDC’s pandemic flu preparedness work.
The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.What was unusual about the 1918 strain of this disease? ›
The 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic, sometimes referred to as the “Spanish flu,” killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including an estimated 675,000 people in the United States. An unusual characteristic of this virus was the high death rate it caused among healthy adults 15 to 34 years of age.What is the difference between the Spanish flu of 1918 and Covid 19? ›
Victims of the 1918 influenza mostly died from secondary bacterial pneumonia, while victims of COVID-19 mostly died from an overactive immune response resulting in organ failure.Could the Spanish flu have been prevented? ›
There were no nationwide prevention methods in place against the Spanish flu. Some communities did put into place prevention methods that may look familiar to us today. The measures included: Isolation, or staying away from crowds of people.How did the 1918 influenza pandemic impact the US and the world? ›
The flu killed 550,000 in the United States, or 0.5 percent of the population. In Spain, 300,000 died for a death rate of 1.4 percent, around average. There is no consensus as to where the flu originated; it became associated with Spain because the press there was first to report it.Why is the Spanish flu called the Forgotten pandemic? ›
And because they were reluctant to talk or write about the pandemic, future generations weren't always aware of it. It became, as the late historian Alfred W. Crosby put it in the title of his 1974 book, “America's forgotten pandemic.”Why were some people immune to the Spanish flu? ›
To this day, people who survived the 1918 flu pandemic carry antibodies that can remember and neutralise the murderous strain. The 1918 influenza virus was the most devastating infections of recent history and killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million people in the space of two years.What agent caused the 1918 flu? ›
The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919.What was unusual about the 1918 influenza and who it infected? ›
The 1918 influenza pandemic had another unique feature, the simultaneous (or nearly simultaneous) infection of humans and swine. The virus of the 1918 pandemic likely expressed an antigenically novel subtype to which most humans and swine were immunologically naive in 1918 (12,20).Is COVID-19 like the Spanish flu? ›
At least 50 million died, with 675,000 deaths occurring in the U.S. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is frequently compared with the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. The destruction caused by that pandemic a century ago may sound familiar.
There were 3 different waves of illness during the pandemic, starting in March 1918 and subsiding by summer of 1919.How similar is Covid to the flu? ›
COVID-19 and the flu have several differences, including different causes, complications and treatments. COVID-19 and the flu also spread differently, have different severity levels and a few different symptoms, and can be prevented by different vaccines.Do people still have antibodies from the Spanish flu? ›
Thus, these studies reveal that survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic possess highly functional, virus-neutralizing antibodies to this uniquely virulent virus, and that humans can sustain circulating B memory cells to viruses for many decades after exposure - well into the tenth decade of life.What was the solution to Spanish flu? ›
At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theaters and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march. READ MORE: See all pandemic coverage here.Why was the Spanish flu difficult to treat? ›
Without previous exposure to the virus, the body's immune system would not have been able to produce an efficient response. Just as importantly, however, the virus itself had not yet fully adapted to life in a human body. Contrary to expectations, it is not normally within a flu virus's interests to kill the host.How did the pandemic impact people's lives? ›
While hospitals were full of COVID patients, another disease ran rampant through many homes. Lockdowns and quarantine caused many to be separated from their families, and with the unknowns of the economy, many Americans found themselves struggling with mental health.How did the pandemic of 1918 affect the economy? ›
During both the pandemics, the economies registered a fall in the per capita GDP. Maddison Project Database (2020), as depicted in Figure 3, suggests that during the influenza pandemic, per capita GDP fell from US$1111 in 1917 to US$968 in 1918. However, in the later years, the per capita GDP began to rise.What effects did the pandemic have on the world? ›
From school closures to devastated industries and millions of jobs lost – the social and economic costs of the pandemic are many and varied. Covid-19 is threatening to widen inequalities everywhere, undermine progress on global poverty and clean energy, and more.Why was the Spanish flu called the Blue Death? ›
The medical term was cyanosis: a blue discoloration of the skin, caused by poor oxygenation of the blood (“Skin Discoloration— Bluish”). It was also one of the final symptoms patients exhibited before they succumbed to the influenza (“The Influenza Pandemic of 1918”).Was the Spanish flu a weapon? ›
Some of the allies thought of the epidemic as a biological warfare tool of the Germans. Many thought it was a result of the trench warfare, the use of mustard gases and the generated "smoke and fumes" of the war. A national campaign began using the rhetoric of war to fight the new microscopic enemy.
The pandemic of 1918 was caused by an H1N1 influenza A virus, which is a negative strand RNA virus; however, little is known about the nature of its direct ancestral strains.Who was not affected by the Spanish flu? ›
People in the Yupik settlements of Gambell and Savoonga on St Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait and the even more remote Saint Paul Island further to the south, showed no trace of antibodies to the 1918 virus when they were tested in the 1950s.How long does natural immunity last flu? ›
From these results, it can be concluded that antibody-based immunity to HA induced by natural infection is long-lived (more than 50 years) and might perhaps be lifelong.Who was most likely to get the Spanish flu? ›
Figure 1 demonstrates clearly the peculiar phenomenon during the “Spanish 'flu” of highest proportionate increases in mortality among young adults, particularly those in their twenties and thirties. For women, these are the child-bearing years, and pregnant women were at particularly high risk of becoming infected.Did the 1918 flu come from China? ›
There are no such peaks in the disease-specific French data, indicating that there were no major disease mortality events prior to late 1918. In conclusion, there is no evidence in the mortality records reviewed that supports the hypothesis that the 1918 influenza pandemic originated in China or Southeast Asia.What medicine was used during the Spanish flu? ›
The treatment was largely symptomatic, aiming to reduce fever or pain. Aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid was a common remedy. For secondary pneumonia doses of epinephrin were given. To combat the cyanosis physicians gave oxygen by mask or some injected it under the skin (JAMA, 10/3/1918).How did people blame Germans for the Spanish flu? ›
While the disease was widely called Spanish influenza because the earliest cases were identified in Spain, some blamed the Germans for intentionally spreading flu as a weapon of war.How long will Covid last? ›
People at higher risk of serious illness may take weeks to recover. If a person develops long-term health problems caused by COVID-19, symptoms most commonly continue for 2 to 8 weeks after infection.How long does influenza A last 2022? ›
For most healthy people, the flu is an uncomfortable but short-term illness that resolves itself as the immune system fights it off. Symptoms usually appear from one to four days after exposure to the virus, and they last five to seven days.When does Covid get worse? ›
A person may have mild symptoms for about one week, then worsen rapidly. Let your doctor know if your symptoms quickly worsen over a short period of time.
The Black Death was probably the earliest recorded pandemic. It took around four years to make its way along the Silk Road from the Steppes of Central Asia, via Crimea, to the Western most parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe alone it wiped out an estimated one to two thirds of the population.Where did the flu originate from? ›
Both contemporary epidemiological studies and lay histories of the pandemic have identified the first known outbreak of epidemic influenza as occurring at Camp Funston, now Ft. Riley, in Kansas.What was the last flu variant? ›
Four influenza pandemics have occurred over the last hundred years. The 1918-1919 pandemic was the most severe, causing an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide. The most recent pandemic occurred in 2009-2010, with the H1N1 (swine flu) virus.Do dogs get Covid? ›
The virus that causes COVID-19 can spread from people to animals during close contact. Pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19. The risk of pets spreading COVID-19 to people is low.What does a Covid headache feel like? ›
Researchers have discovered that some of the prominent features of a COVID-19 headache include: Having a pulsing, pressing, or stabbing sensation. Occurring bilaterally (across the whole head) Presenting with severe pressure that won't respond to typical pain relievers, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.Is Covid a form of flu? ›
COVID-19 and influenza are both respiratory diseases.
Both viruses share similar symptoms, including cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, headache and fatigue. People may have varying levels of illness with both COVID-19 and influenza. Some may have no symptoms, mild symptoms or severe disease.
How large was the share who died in the pandemic? Estimates suggest that the world population in 1918 was 1.8 billion. Based on this, the low estimate of 17.4 million deaths by Spreeuwenberg et al. (2018) implies that the Spanish flu killed almost 1% (0.95%) of the world population.Is fresh air good for the flu? ›
In fact, getting fresh air is good for you when you're feeling under the weather. When you're cooped up inside, you're sharing the same air with those around you. So every time someone coughs or sneezes inside, those infected droplets are still in the air.What part of the world is the flu more common? ›
This suggests that each year, the influenza virus begins in the west and spreads to the east across the globe, which goes to explain why there are such high numbers of influenza suffers in the east every year.What developed to protect people's health after the Spanish flu? ›
Developments since the 1918 pandemic include vaccines to help prevent flu, antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia, and a global influenza surveillance system with 114 World Health Organization member states that constantly monitors flu activity.
The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years. It is an oddity of history that the influenza epidemic of 1918 has been overlooked in the teaching of American history.What is significant about the year 1918? ›
This year is noted for the end of the First World War, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as well as for the Spanish flu pandemic that killed 50–100 million people worldwide.What events led to the 1918 influenza epidemic? ›
The conditions of World War I (overcrowding and global troop movement) helped the 1918 flu spread. The vulnerability of healthy young adults and the lack of vaccines and treatments created a major public health crisis, causing at least 50 million deaths worldwide, including approximately 675,000 in the United States.Why is it important that we understand the genetics behind the 1918 virus? ›
This kind of information has helped health officials to devise appropriate strategies for early diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, should a similar pandemic virus emerge.How long did the 1918 flu pandemic last? ›
The 1918 influenza lasted 25 months, and may have originated in Spain, France or the USA with no definite evidence of origination. The first wave lasted approximately from 15 February 1918 to 1 June 1918 and the fourth and final wave lasted approximately from 1 December 1919 to 30 April 1920.What is the significance of the era of 1914 1918? ›
World War I, also called First World War or Great War, an international conflict that in 1914–18 embroiled most of the nations of Europe along with Russia, the United States, the Middle East, and other regions.What happened at the end of 1918? ›
In 1918, the infusion of American troops and resources into the western front finally tipped the scale in the Allies' favor. Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies on November 11, 1918. World War I was known as the “war to end all wars” because of the great slaughter and destruction it caused.Who was most affected by the 1918 flu? ›
Read about the 1918 influenza pandemic and progress made in preparedness and response. Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.What animal did the flu come from? ›
Answer: Influenza is a virus that's spread from person to person. It originates, actually, among birds and other animals such as pigs, and new viral strains of influenza come to this country and to Europe from Southeast Asia.How did scientists recover the 1918 flu virus for direct study? ›
The permafrost plus the woman's ample fat stores kept the virus in her lungs so well preserved that when a team of scientists exhumed her body in the late 1990s, they could recover enough viral RNA to sequence the 1918 strain in its entirety.
Scientists thought that influenza was caused by a bacterium they called Baccilus influenzae (now known as Hemophilus influenzae.) They could isolate and see many types of bacteria under a microscope. They also knew that there were disease agents smaller than bacteria that they could filter out of a mixture.What is role of genetics in pandemic? ›
The influential role of genetic factors in infectious diseases is not new. For Influenza pandemic, there are compelling evidences suggesting that individual genetic differences contribute to the severity of the disease.