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How the Spanish Flu Killed More People than World War One

November 6, 2019


Each year we are flooded with large ad campaigns encouraging us to get our flu shots. Most of us probably wonder why. The flu doesn’t seem that bad, right? But then, every few years, a deadly bout of swine flu, or bird flu spreads through society and we understand a bit better. But in 1918 the flu demonstrated just how bad it could be. We had an outbreak of the disease like no other. The Spanish flu would go on to kill more people than the the first world war, in just a matter of months. This is the story of the pandemic that touched every corner of the globe. In a British army hospital and staging camp in Étaples France, the Spanish flu jumped from a bird, to a pig, and then to a soldier. This nameless soldier did not know it, but his body incubated a disease that set off the deadliest outbreak in history. The flu was spread by the close quarters and massive troop movements of the First World War. With so many millions of troops moving and living together and 20th century transportation making contact with new people commonplace, the virus proliferated at a rate never seen before. Every human the virus infected would be a Petri dish. The virus could mutate, evolve, and eventually become more lethal to Humans. In a matter of weeks, the virus was all over the world. The disease became known as the Spanish Flu as news of it spread through the allied forces. Spain was not participating in the war, and so they did not employ a wartime censorship on the press. Because of that, the first stories to come out about the flu came from Spanish sources. And so the virus that jumped to humans in a British hospital in France, got the name the Spanish flu. The Spanish flu had an amazing ability to spread, but that’s not the only noteworthy thing about it. It was also the deadliest flu ever encountered. It killed about 10 to 20% of those who contracted the disease, totaling about 3 to 6% of the earth’s population. To understand what made the flu so deadly, I have contacted Chad from Childish Wonder to explain the science. The great influenza pandemic of 1918 was the most destructive pandemic in recorded history, killing more people than all the casualties from World War One. It is estimated to have infected over a quarter (28%) of the world’s population and resulted in the death of 50 –100 million people. In fact, there were so many deaths that the American life expectancy dropped by 10 years during this time. The weird thing about this pandemic is that unlike yearly influenza epidemics, which usually have the greatest impact on infants and the elderly, the 1918 influenza pandemic took its greatest toll on healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40. But why would that be? Well, the virus in 1918 was so efficient at invading the lungs that the immune system was forced to mount a massive response to it. And what ended up killing these people wasn’t actually the virus itself, it was these people’s own immune systems. Typically, the body can fight off the influenza virus before it can really penetrate, but once the 1918 virus got into the lungs, the immune system had to do everything it possibly could to get rid of it. And it didn’t hold back. Part of its defense was to produce a HUGE amount of cytokines, proteins that increase blood flow and recruit more immune cells to the site of infection. The immune cells and cytokines in the lungs then waged war. Unfortunately, the casualties of this war ended up being their own bodies. This attack, sometimes called a cytokine storm, damaged uninfected tissue as well, and caused fluid to leak from the blood vessels, filling up their lungs. And it didn’t stop there, cytokines leaked into the rest of the circulation as well, causing high fevers, uncontrollable bleeding, and eventually, multiple organ failure and death. So it wasn’t actually the virus that killed, it was the immune response. And having a healthy immune system was a liability rather than an asset. Those with weaker immune systems, were actually the ones able to survive as their bodies couldn’t generate such massive and devastating responses. But healthy young adults could, and sadly, they were the ones that disproportionately made up the victims of this pandemic. Thanks Chad. By August of 1918, the flu had undergone a new, much deadlier mutation; Quickly spreading to France, Sierra Leone, and the United States. The ongoing war actually helped make it deadlier. Under normal conditions, viruses that cause mild illness actually spread the easiest. However, on the front lines of a battlefield, a mild flu does not release a soldier from duty. Only deadly, serious diseases send soldiers back to the giant hospitals filled with immune compromised soldiers. Through this, the deadliest strains were the one’s that survived and spread. Even in places with relatively low death rates, the Spanish flu ravaged communities. It instilled in people a fear of one another, and halted the delivery of public services. Infected by ships coming from New Zealand, the pacific islands of Fiji, Nauru, and Tonga were hit extra hard. They lost as much as 15% of their population. The flu spread to all corners of the earth. The only place that didn’t experience a severe outbreak of it, was a tiny island off the coast of Brazil. And possibly Antarctica, unless there was a penguin flu we don’t know about. Then out of nowhere, the Spanish flu disappeared. Just as fast as it began. There was no vaccine, no cure, it just simply mutated into a milder form. It did however leave a deep legacy. Historian Andrew Price-Smith argued that the heavier death tolls from the Spanish Flu in Germany and Austria are what tipped the stalemated First World War in favor of the allies. It also might have given the predominantly female nursing corps a shot in the arm, showing that they could help when the mainly male doctors without a vaccine or cure couldn’t. This might have emboldened the profession and pushed more women to go to higher education for nursing. The flashier First World War going on at the time, meant that within a decade or two, the Spanish flu was largely forgotten. It was not until the bird flu scares of the 90s and 2000s that this forgotten pandemic was remembered. We tend to think great events in history happen because of human agency. The allied victory in the First World War was due to a surge of american troops, diseases are cured by doctors, and the industrial revolution was a result of strong government policy. But we didn’t control the Spanish flu. It came and went all on its own. Maybe sometimes we don’t have as much power as we think. Maybe sometimes things just happen. In many ways we’re simply animals, and our ideas of control over our own destiny are often greatly exaggerated. How much control do you think we actually have over our own history? Let me know what you think down below. If you want more history that goes off the battlefield subscribe for more Step Back.

55 Comments

  • Reply Knowledgeable Reaction November 26, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Wow, I knew about the Spanish flu only because of its death count! thanks for putting this topic into perspective

  • Reply YouCanScienceIt November 27, 2015 at 4:45 am

    I know this is off topic from the point of the video but was it a deliberate choice to show the "Red Peak" design for New Zealand? The flag referendum is currently taking place between that one and four others before going up against the existing flag (which looks alarmingly like Australia's flag). i.e. was this your subtle way of suggesting your favorite flag design or just an honest mistake?

    Also nice video. I liked the collab with Childish Wonder and how your avatar got all the illness while he talked. Good in depth stuff, I particularly liked learning how the flu got it's name.

  • Reply Soliloquy November 27, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Argg, I might have to change nationalities if that Red Peak flag wins.

  • Reply BillThompson1955 November 29, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Just a footnote, but the Spanish flu was remembered in 1975, when the USA had its swine-flu scare.  The virus was believed to be the same one that caused the Spanish flu.  There were mass public immunizations in America.  Awareness was aided, to a degree, when the fourth season of "Upstairs, Downstairs" was run on public-broadcast stations.  That season was set in the Great War and its final episode had Meg Wynn Owen's beloved character die from the Spanish flu.

  • Reply Lawrence Tider November 29, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    My greatgrandmother died from the Spanish flu. Very interesting vid.

  • Reply Stephen Winslow November 30, 2015 at 1:51 am

    The background music in this video is annoying and makes watching it difficult.

  • Reply Stephen Winslow November 30, 2015 at 4:48 am

    Maybe some classical music would fit better.What was that background music anyway?It was weird.

  • Reply Dean Cook December 6, 2015 at 4:58 am

    Did you just jump a crazy amount of subs since your last video?

    Good work man, keep it up.

  • Reply julian _ January 21, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    i found this channel when i was looking for a crash course video. And i really enjoyed this and you really helped me out with my paper, thanks!!

  • Reply Kenny February 25, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    4k mmm

  • Reply Mario Guel Osorio July 14, 2016 at 5:36 am

    excelent video

  • Reply Copetekk July 17, 2016 at 12:10 am

    I wish Magic had a Flu card

  • Reply Scott Allen July 19, 2016 at 6:28 am

    pretty sure there is a Metallica song quote in this video. new subscriber here.

  • Reply nemesis962074 August 5, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    Poor good guy Spain

  • Reply J. C September 24, 2016 at 5:27 am

    Love this video! So informative. Subbed!

  • Reply Tamilarasi Supramaniam September 30, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Thank U fr ths Informative Video ☺

  • Reply Rodrigo B. October 19, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    The island on Brazil is called "Fernando de Noronha".

  • Reply Joh Pañares November 19, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    You got yourself a new subscriber! 🙂

  • Reply Sophia Wilson November 30, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    I heard many different story of origin of Spanish Flu that wasn't the Soldier that this video is talking about..

  • Reply Esthetics By Mel December 4, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Welp i have the flu right now. been in my house for a week straight.

  • Reply Albert Demidziuk December 7, 2016 at 12:18 am

    did it not origin in the USA or China? And there were casualties on Antarctica if I'm not mistaken 🙂

  • Reply Step Back History December 14, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    Sometimes, events of the past meet with interesting scientific elements. This series showcases when these two meet. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd2wXiWTeQc&list=PLnpoOo7lhNnE7wLQ6NKD92MV3u8sC5kN4

  • Reply Pattie Avilla December 17, 2016 at 8:04 am

    well everything in the world is born without reason or help we don't know why it happend but hey theres every a sultion to it

  • Reply Cbaha December 22, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    Just imagine getting infected with Spanish flu and jakob disease

  • Reply gregory barton January 14, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Mumbling and background opera(?) make the narrative bearly intelligible.

  • Reply Hannah!!! February 13, 2017 at 11:26 pm

    You have the wrong flag for New Zealand. Please correct

  • Reply Sean Furlong February 23, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    I have read that the Spanish Flu reached the Arctic, how did it get there?

  • Reply Phaux Redtail March 28, 2017 at 11:01 am

    What surprises me is how few people know of this, you ask people if they know about the black death and most will tell you they do and while they don't know a lot of details they know enough, you ask them about this and they have no clue what you're talking about and this happened not even 100 years ago. i mean I had never heard about this until a few years ago myself, I know I had never heard about it in school, so how does such a thing go untaught in schools? I mean, you're right, those types of history lessons dont like to focus on many things outside of our control, but still

  • Reply Rose Nina April 15, 2017 at 10:10 am

    I searched The Spanish flu becuz of playing plague Inc.

  • Reply MrMetalHead1100 May 14, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    thanks obama

  • Reply Sadiq Khawaja July 1, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    What's incredible is that the statistic is now up to roughly 50 million that's nearly the same as WW2

  • Reply Amir Mark July 16, 2017 at 1:23 am

    Not cool spanish why make such viruses :3

  • Reply MattVibes August 31, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    So is that what happened in The Walking Dead

  • Reply Taraprakash Sharma September 24, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Is Spanish flu is like zombie virus

  • Reply tenhirankei October 2, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    I was expecting the disease that ravaged the New World that came with the conquistadors and explorers. Glad to be mistaken.

  • Reply fidel catsro October 12, 2017 at 6:29 am

    Im never gonna kiss my cat again after watching this…catflu could be sticking around the corner!

  • Reply Pat Mullarkey November 1, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    I read it began at Fort Riley in Kansas, a military base in the United States. "Fort Riley is believed to be the origin of the world-wide epidemic that killed millions, said Robert Smith, director of the museum division at Fort Riley."

  • Reply aoishee November 17, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    I came here after watching world war z on tv and watching higschool of the dead to know more bout this flu cause it seems related to zombies

  • Reply sergine Parice December 8, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    Can you please tell me the writing style and content of the great Influenza 1918? Thank you!

  • Reply chai momma December 31, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    Aspirin further mutated the virus. Don’t take aspirin or Acetaminophen during the flu until your fever has passed. You need your fever! Take ibuprofen in moderation. Check labels of cold medicines which include pain relievers/fever reducers. God Bless

  • Reply Hunter D January 7, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    I just saw on the SciShow channel the exact same subject. The information on theirs and your channel matches up almost completely. The only difference is as to where the "credit" the Outbreak originated from. They say there is still argument about that, some say China others Kansas, USA while yiu say firmly it came from the UK. However both of you agree that it did not come from Spain. They just didn't have the need to hide the news about it in their own country.

  • Reply Kekero January 8, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Did you just say that interest rates went negative.
    Pls explain how that scheme worked to make money?

  • Reply Soviet Sandwich January 18, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    I know this is unrelated but why did they use a flag from the New Zealand flag referendum instead of the actual New Zealand flag, especially because the flag used now was used back then and was popular then because they were a member of the British empire

  • Reply Valerie Griner February 13, 2018 at 3:33 am

    All the people I know who have had severe bouts of the flu(with pneumonia as a complication)…TOOK the stupid flu vaccines! You won't catch me taking one…they are lethal. My own MD has been hospitalized twice..with severe flu…and he takes all the vaccines…go figure.

  • Reply E. W March 26, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    HA! I am in 2018!

  • Reply peter griffin April 3, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    the spanish flu was smart it wanted to eradicate all life on earth and found out the best way to do so was to let us all nuke ourselves its quicker then infecting everybody right?

  • Reply peter griffin April 3, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    the spanish flu was smart it wanted to eradicate all life on earth and found out the best way to do so was to let us all nuke ourselves its quicker then infecting everybody right?

  • Reply Doug Lemmikey April 30, 2018 at 6:50 am

    This video incorrectly states that the pandemic started with a british officer. there is evidence that it started in Austria, Kansas, and France. I have never heard Britain, but even if did start there, you speak as if it were confirmed, if so, please post your data, I want to cross check it.

  • Reply Doug Lemmikey April 30, 2018 at 6:51 am

    Historian Alfred W. Crosby recorded that the flu originated in the U.S. state of Kansas,[22] and popular writer John Barry echoed Crosby in describing Haskell County, as the point of origin[23] although already in late 1917 there had been a first wave in at least 14 US military camps.[24] (SCROLL DOWN)

    Investigative work in 1999 by a British team led by virologist John Oxford[25] of St Bartholomew's Hospital and the Royal London Hospital identified the major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France, as being the center of the 1918 flu pandemic. In late 1917, military pathologists reported the onset of a new disease with high mortality that they later recognized as the flu. The overcrowded camp and hospital — which treated thousands of victims of chemical attacks and other casualties of war — was an ideal site for the spreading of a respiratory virus; 100,000 soldiers were in transit every day. It also was home to a live piggery, and poultry was regularly brought in from surrounding villages. Oxford and his team postulated that a significant precursor virus, harbored in birds, mutated so it could migrate to pigs that were kept near the front.[26][27]

    Earlier hypotheses of the epidemic's origin have varied. Some hypothesized the flu originated in East Asia.[28] Claude Hannoun, the leading expert on the 1918 flu for the Pasteur Institute, asserted the former virus was likely to have come from China, mutating in the United States near Boston and spreading to Brest, France, Europe's battlefields, Europe, and the world using Allied soldiers and sailors as main spreaders.[29] He considered several other hypotheses of origin, such as Spain, Kansas, and Brest, as being possible, but not likely.

    Political scientist Andrew Price-Smith published data from the Austrian archives suggesting the influenza had earlier origins, beginning in Austria in early 1917.[30]

    In 2014, historian Mark Humphries of the Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's stated that newly unearthed records confirmed that one of the side stories of the war, the mobilization of 96,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines on World War I's western front, might have been the source of the pandemic. In the report, Humphries found archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the "Spanish" flu.[31][32] A report published in 2016 in the Journal of the Chinese Medical Association found no evidence that the 1918 virus was imported to Europe via Chinese and Southeast Asian soldiers and workers. It found evidence that the virus had been circulating in the European armies for months and possibly years before the 1918 pandemic.[33]

  • Reply Sven Kobus July 26, 2018 at 8:13 pm

    it is kinda stupid ti say that the spanish flu defeated germany. It probely made it's defeat a lot faster.

  • Reply Raceris November 16, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    It is super unfortunate that I found out about this pandemic not from my history classes, but rather from youtube. Thank you for clearing things up!

  • Reply Alexa Harrison January 20, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    Ur oc scares me more than the flu

  • Reply FishOuttaWater January 23, 2019 at 10:48 pm

    What if that solider was a youtuber who went back in time. PLAUGE INC IRL. (LIVE FOOTAGE OF PEOPLE DYING, SO SCARY)

  • Reply Matowix April 4, 2019 at 5:03 am

    Disliked because u used the wrong new Zealand flag.

  • Reply Adela Hogarth June 14, 2019 at 10:11 am

    Australia did implement a long list of quarantine responses and actually did create a vaccine through the then speedily created Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) which is running to this day as basically our pandemic emergency vaccine R&D department as well as create anti-venom for snake and spider bites.

    The vaccine did not treat Spanish Flu specifically, but it did treat post-flu bacterial infections that exacerbated respiratory problems.

    40% of Australians by 1919 fell ill, but due to Australian safeguards, its mass vaccination campaigns, and quarantine methods diminishing re-infection by evolving agents only 12,500 Australians died.

    And keep in mind… Australia was a major participant of the Great war, sending roughly 417,000 volunteer soldiers to fight from 1914 – 1918, as well as the subsequent post-war pacification and intervention in the Russian Civil War.

    The vaccines Australia mobilized was partly the reason why Australia managed to save so many of its people.

    So vaccine campaigns save lives, peeps.

    The Spanish Flu was as awful as they came, and despite massive infection rates and lacking effective vaccines, intelligent quarantine and lateral preventative measures like vaccinating against a variety of post-Spanish Flu infections that would otherwise claim lives in the crowded hospitals and clinics meant Australian health services could get on top of the patient loads before they overwhelmed the system.

    By estimates only 1 in 130 people who fell ill died as a result because of these measures. Which was phenomenal compared with the rest of the world, and part and parcel of that was not worrying about the disease so much as worrying about all the other disease complications.

    Even if it's not specifically designed to treat the disease you're worried about, they can safeguard against incipient and post-infection co-morbid possible ailments which may complicate current conditions or weakened bodies.

    So get those shots…  They're free. No excuses.

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