Micro War – The Spanish Flu Epidemic

As the country was enduring a catastrophic experience and (although they did not know it yet) in the last year of The Great War, Britain and the world were about to feel the strain of a particularly violent and virulent disease that would wipe out 50 to 100 million people. The Spanish Flu epidemic first began to flex it muscles in January 1918 in a world with limited life expectancies and war-torn countries that would proceed to blame each other for the dire circumstances some families would find themselves in.  The Spanish Flu first showed strains across Europe, the United States of America and parts of Asia, and due to the increased movement of individuals globally, before steadily spreading across the world. Although vaccinations had been around for over one hundred years, with the invention of the Smallpox vaccine in 1796, there was no effective treatment for this influenza strain.  Before the end of the epidemic in Britain citizens were forced to wear masks, entire institutions were bordered up and bodies piled inside the door of poorly constructed new morgues to cope with the demand. The strain did not discriminate, wealthy and poor, young and old all succumb quickly, sometimes spreading across an entire estate upstairs and downstairs to further add grief to families who’d lost someone in the war.

Influenza is a virus that dominates the lungs and whole respiratory system and is one of the most contagious diseases known to humans. Spread easily when someone coughs, sneezes and/or talks it is transmitted through the air into the breathing space of anyone nearby. The likelihood of it spreading to everyone in one household once one member has it is extremely high especially if an infected person touches items that is also handled by others. Many influenzas, or flu, appear yearly and vary on severity, think on the 2017 Aussie Flu outbreak, but none had been as virulent as the Spanish Flu. It is particularly dangerous in people with diabetes, young children, pregnant women and asthmatic people, but the flu also brings a myriad of issues including pneumonia and bronchitis. Many doctors in the war period would have been familiar with flu seasons that occupy late autumn to early spring every year however none would have been prepared for a strain that has little immunity globally.

The first wave of the Spanish flu arrived in spring 1918 but did not cause much concern as deaths did not exceed normal flu fatalities and most victims regained health within a week of their worst day. Doctors reported that the initial cases appeared in Spain hence why the sufferers based blame around the Spanish people who were hit the hardest during the most dangerous periods of the strain. There were reports of cases appearing elsewhere yet the censorship within the media prevented anything being reported that would lower morale of the people and those on the front lines. Spain was not under these regulations as heavily as the UK and Germany hence why Spanish cases were heard of first, especially since one of the first victims included the King of Spain Alfonso XIII. Spain had declared neutrality because of familial connections to both sides of the war therefore news leaked easily into the newspapers of the world. The world war had caused an extensive amount of deaths in people in the regions affected by bombing and trenches, yet the world was not ready to combat a micro-war, one that would creep into all corners without any particularly compelling reason as to where it came from or why.

The UK was hit in a series of waves throughout the year of 1918 with the end of World War One bringing the harshest low points. The disease spread from soldiers returning to train stations from abroad thus allowing the strain to be contracted from the inner cities and to slowly spread outwards in to the countryside. Prime Minister David Lloyd George contracted the disease alongside Walt Disney and Kaiser Willhelm II of Germany yet all survived. Onset of the more virulent periods were quick and violent with cartoonists displaying people healthy at breakfast and then dead by dinner. The flu initially caused the common flu symptoms of fatigue, fever and headaches before rapidly becoming serious in slowly suffocating the victims through increased shortage of oxygen. Hospitals were stretched to breaking point with medical students being drafted in early yet there was nothing to be done except give those dying comfort as there were no antibiotics to treat any part of the strain or resultative conditions.

In one year fifty million people died worldwide. Two hundred and twenty-eight thousand people died in the UK and the global mortality rate landed between ten and twenty percent. Historians have discovered that a larger amount of people died during this one year of epidemic flu than across the worst four years of the Bubonic Plague in the fourteenth century. Across the known world only one small region did not report any outbreaks down the Amazon river of Brazil.


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