The Spanish Flu of 1918 - History's Fastest Killer

Paul V. Hartman

It is estimated that between 25 and 40 million people died from the influenza outbreak that began in 1918, took about 7 days to sweep across America, and three months to sweep around the world. World War 1, which had just ended, took 9 million lives; this epidemic would quadruple that.

Despite the name "Spanish", it probably began in America, of little relevance, since it spread faster than any disease in history, before or since, and killed more people in less time than all of the great plagues of history, doing so in the presence of relatively "modern" medical science. Some areas were harder hit than others: in Alaska, 60% of the Eskimo population was wiped out. Islands in the South Pacific where respiratory illness is uncommon and non-lethal lost 20% of their populations, primarily adults.

Apparently this was a flu strain which had undergone a mutation to particular savageness. Flu viruses mutate constantly in what is known as "antigenic drift", usually in such minimal ways that last year's flu or vaccine offers some protection against this year's. But about every decade or two, such drift may be major, with a significant protein coat change so dramatic as to be regarded by the human body as an entirely new virus. Then it sweeps through the human population with a vengeance.

Viral antigenic drift appears to be occurring at a faster rate. (The AIDS virus seems to be mutating even faster than more common viruses.) When an epidemic like the Spanish Flu of 1918 begins, no vaccine is helpful; such an epidemic spreads around the world faster than any research laboratory could isolate, prepare, and then distribute the appropriate vaccine.

Which means we can fully expect another world-wide viral epidemic with high mortality. We think we are in charge, but we cannot defeat Mother Nature; every once in a while we have to re-learn that lesson.

Reference: "Influenza: The Last Great Plague" by W. Beveridge, 1977

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