Our history’s deadliest pandemic broke out exactly 100 years ago. More people died from Spanish flu than from the battles of the first world war: the virus killed around 25 million people, about 3-5% of the population.
Why is it called the Spanish Flu?
Although it actually didn’t appear on the Iberian peninsula first, the first official reports are from Spain. The opposing parties - Entente vs the Central Powers - didn’t want to reveal their weaknesses to the other side, therefore the press was heavily censored. Spain was neutral in WWI, so they didn’t have to be so careful. The first cases might have been from Kansas, USA or China.
Why was this pathogen so special?
This reason of this pandemic being so deadly was thought to be due to the pathogen being some kind of a supervirus. Only recently did scientists prove that it was actually very similar to other flu viruses. It is an Influenza type A virus, only two amino acids from its surface protein are different from avian (bird) flu. However, fortunately, this little difference is also protecting us from the bird flu spreading from human to human.
Why did it have so many victims especially among the young and strong soldiers?
The virus was spreading extremely fast but the progression of the illness was also unbelievably rapid. Certainly children and the elderly were susceptible and usually died from pneumonia. What is very surprising that among the victims there were a significant number of healthy, 25-40 years old men. How is this possible? Scientists say that their immune system was overreacting. The reaction was so strong it destroyed the healthy lung tissues. However, there were other reasons the mortality was so high. They were mostly connected with the war - the barracks were overcrowded, hygiene was generally bad and the people were malnourished.
Do we have to fear from another flu pandemic?
Epidemiologists say it’s almost impossible to predict. In theory, with all the mutations and genetic shifting, bird flu might gain the ability to spread easily among humans. Some experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before we’re hit by another deadly flu pandemic. Back then people used horses and still, the virus spread incredibly rapid. Imagine that now with all the airplanes... Truth is we are better prepared than a hundred years ago. With modern surveillance, we can detect pandemics way quicker. Vaccines help prevent and antiviral drugs help heal the individuals.