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The Spanish flu: the biggest pandemic in modern history

October 22, 2019

The 1918 flu epidemic, also known as the great
flu epidemic or the Spanish flu, is considered the worst global pandemic in history, as it
concentrated a high mortality in a short period of time. It is estimated that the mortality
rate of the pandemic was between 10% and 20%, and that it killed between 50 and 100 million
people worldwide. In Spain the number of deaths is estimated at around 300,000. Unlike other flu epidemics that primarily
affected children and the elderly, many of its victims were healthy young people and
adults in their 20s and 40s, as well as animals such as dogs and cats. The flu began to spread at the end of World
War I. The media in the countries that participated in the war were under military censorship,
so they concealed the pandemic. However, Spain, being neutral, reported in the press on the
new cases, using names such as “the fever of three days”, “the soldier of Naples” or
“the fashionable disease”. It seemed that Spain was the only country affected. This
is why the disease was known all over the world as the Spanish flu. Although by the fall of 1917 the disease had
already occurred in fourteen military camps, some consider Gilbert Mitchell, a cook at
Fort Riley camp in Kansas, to be a zero patient. Mitchell entered the morning of March 4, 1918
with fever and headache to the infirmary and a few hours later there were more than a hundred
cases under treatment, so they had to set up a hangar to care for patients. The symptoms of this disease were high fever,
earache, body fatigue, diarrhoea and occasional vomiting, and sometimes breathing difficulties
and nosebleeds. Most of the people who died were the result of secondary bacterial pneumonia,
as antibiotics were not available. However, one group died quickly after the first symptoms
appeared in as little as two or three days. By mid-April 1918, the flu was already raging
in the trenches of Western Europe. He passed from France to Great Britain, Italy, and came
to Spain. Even King Alfonso XIII became ill, and the Spanish newspapers echoed the disease,
which was spreading so alarmingly. As can be seen in this graph, most fatalities
fell in just 13 weeks, from September to mid-December 1918, in what is known as the second wave. The poorest people and populations suffered
the consequences of this flu in a special way, but it also affected governors such as
the president of the United States Woodrow Wilson, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George,
or Kaiser Guillermo. The painter Edvard Munch even captured it in a self-portrait and others
like Gustav Klimt did not survive the disease. All the newspapers of the moment collected
advertisements with miraculous remedies. The elixirs, medicinal waters, tonics and other
remedies stand out. Doctors at the time recommended aspirin (in
doses now considered counterproductive), quinine, prepared with arsenic, camphor oil or castor
oil. Some even encouraged people to smoke thinking that inhaling smoke killed germs. Different medical publications of the time,
available in the Hispanic digital library, attempted to respond to the causes of the
epidemic and reported on its progress and consequences. An Italian scientist, Professor Sacone, claimed
to have isolated the germ that caused the disease, but time proved it was not true.
The strain of the virus causing the Spanish flu (AH1N1) was not discovered until 1943,
and its genetic sequence was not determined until 2005. Every day, Spanish newspapers picked up on
the importance of hygiene education and how this task was carried out in Germany from
schools and pulpits, making the number of flu deaths before the war the lowest in all
of Europe. They also warn that patients who do not experience
any symptoms, the so-called convalescents, can be a focus of spread of the epidemic,
so they recommend keeping them one or two weeks more in isolation. The use of cloth masks became mandatory for
all those performing public service work. This measure was a health recommendation made
to the rest of the population to prevent the disease from spreading so easily. The more contact there was between people,
the more likely they were to reproduce the virus. The government is beginning to take
preventive measures to try to stop this crisis. Theatres, circuses, workshops, factories and
public places are disinfected and some events are suspended. It is forbidden to import goods
from Morocco. Strangers entering populations are identified. Tuition and examinations are extended indefinitely,
and rectors are even given the freedom to suspend classes if they see fit. The third and last wave was more benign, as
many people were already immunized, giving the pandemic under control in the spring of
1919. And the disease ended on its own. By the summer of 2020, the virus had disappeared.
While he won the battle against the weakest, the rest were immunized.

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