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How Spanish Flu took hold before the end of the First World War

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The Spanish Flu was a terrible illness that spread across Europe and was brought to Britain by returning soldiers and ships bringing food to feed the starving nation. 

It was a pandemic that gripped the country and would end up killing more people across the world than the war itself.

The first reported case of Spanish influenza (flu) was in March 1918, towards the end of the war and it quickly became a pandemic. 

A pandemic is an illness that spreads around the world. The virus didn’t come from Spain, nor was Spain particularly badly hit (although the King of Spain died from Spanish flu), but Spain was the first country to have reliable reports about the virus, and that’s how it got its name.

In just four months it had travelled across the world, infecting about half of the world’s population. 

Nearly fifty million people across the globe would die from Spanish flu – that’s many more people than died in the Great war.  It’s easy to see why it was known as the “greatest enemy of all”.

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Where did it come from?

Doctors weren’t sure what had caused the outbreak. 

At the time, some people wondered if it was caused by a poisonous gas – medical knowledge about viruses wasn’t as advanced as it is today.  We now know that viruses can pass between humans and animals and even birds. People and goods were moving around the world in greater number than ever before.

Troops for the war would embark on journeys to different countries, and there were also more travellers than ever thanks to better ships and new rail networks. 

Trade between countries had never been so busy and so with all this movement, a virus would have found it easy to spread to every continent.

Another reason the virus found it easy to spread was that troops were often camped closely together and this meant that viruses could pass easily between the men.

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Spanish Flu in the UK

It’s fairly certain that the cases in the UK were as a result of the returning troops.  The virus would be carried on the air from the railway trains carrying the troops to the towns and cities and even further to the countryside.  

Hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of cases and graveyards struggled to bury the increasing number of dead.  There were no treatments for the flu and no antibiotics to treat the pneumonia and so there was little the medical profession could do to stem the tide of deaths.

Who would get Spanish flu?

Anyone could catch the virus – even the Prime Minister at the time caught it but was very lucky to survive. Walt Disney, the famous cartoonist also caught Spanish flu and survived. 

Young people between 20 and 30 seemed to be particularly badly affected and the disease took hold quickly in these cases. You could be healthy in the morning and dead by night time.

A quarter of the British population were affected, and although not everyone who caught the flu died, 228,000 people lost their lives. More people died of influenza in that single year than in the four years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351.

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What was it like to have Spanish Flu?

Patients would start by feeling like they just had a cold, perhaps with a headache and a sore throat and a high temperature.  Within hours pneumonia would set in, which affects the lungs and breathing. Patients would start turning blue, signalling lack of oxygen and death was by suffocation as the patient became unable to breathe

What have we learned from Spanish Flu?

The virus has been studied over the last century and more has been discovered about how if affected the body and why some people were more affected than others. 

The virus triggered a strong reaction to the body’s immune system, causing it to attack itself, and as young people have more active immune systems than the very young or the very old, this is why they were at greater risk of death. 

Because was the greatest Pandemic of all time, the government and hospitals had to quickly learn how best to treat a large number of casualties and contain the outbreak.

It’s thought that one of the reasons the virus went away was in part due to putting into place better hygiene measures, as the disease spread, such as keeping patients away from others – a lesson we know to be crucial in infection control today.

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The Great War

The Great War - Life through a Child's Eye.

More From The Great War