The “Spanish flu” was used to describe the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 and its name suggests that the epidemic began in Spain. But the term is actually a misnomer and points to a key fact: The countries involved in World War I did not accurately report their influenza outbreaks.
Spain remained neutral throughout World War I and its press freely reported its cases of influenza, including when the Spanish King Alfonso XIII contracted it in the spring of 1918. This has led to the misperception that the flu. flu originated or was at its worst in Spain.
“Basically it’s called the ‘Spanish flu’ because the Spanish media did their job,” explains Lora vogt, curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. In Britain and the United States – which have long blamed other countries for the disease – the outbreak was also known as the “Spanish handle” or “Spanish Lady”.
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Historians are not sure where the 1918 flu strain began, but the first recorded cases were at a US Army camp in Kansas in March 1918. By the end of 1919 it had infected up to a third of the world’s population and had killed a few. 50 million people. It was the worst influenza pandemic in recorded history, and it was likely exacerbated by a combination of censorship, skepticism and denial among countries at war.
“Viruses don’t care where they come from, they love to take advantage of censorship in wartime,” says Carol R. Byerly, author of War fever: the flu epidemic in the US military during World War I. “Censorship is very dangerous during a pandemic. “
The flu in Europe
When the flu broke out in 1918, wartime press censorship was more entrenched in European countries because Europe had been fighting since 1914, when the United States had only entered the war in 1917. Difficult to know the extent of this censorship, because the most effective way to cover up something is to not leave publicly accessible recordings of its deletion. Discovering the impact of censorship is also complicated by the fact that when governments pass censorship laws, people often censor themselves for fear of breaking the law.
In Britain, which fought for the Allied Powers, “the Kingdom’s Defense Act has been used to some extent to suppress … news that could be a threat to national morale,” says Catherine arnold, author of 1918 pandemic: eyewitness accounts of the largest medical holocaust in modern history. “The government can slam what is called a D-Notice on [a news story]”D” for Defense – and that means it can’t be released because it’s not in the national interest. “
Newspapers and officials claimed during the first flu wave in the spring and early summer of 1918 that this was not a serious threat. The Illustrated News from London wrote that the 1918 flu was “so mild that it shows the original virus to subside with frequent transmission.” Sir Arthur Newsholme, chief medical officer of the British Local Government Board, suggested it was unpatriotic to be concerned with the flu rather than the war, Arnold says.
The second flu wave, which began in late summer and got worse this fall, was much deadlier. Even so, the warring nations continued to try to cover it up. In August, Italy’s interior minister – another allied power – denied reports of the spread of the flu. In September, British officials and press barons suppressed news that the Prime Minister had contracted the flu during a trip to Manchester to boost morale. Instead, the Manchester goalkeeper explained his extended stay in the city, saying he caught an “intense thrill” in a rainstorm.
READ MORE: Why the second flu wave of 1918 was so deadly
Warring nations covered up the flu to protect the morale of their own citizens and soldiers, but also because they didn’t want enemy nations to know they were suffering from an epidemic. The flu devastated General Erich Ludendorff’s German troops so much that he had to postpone his last offensive. The general, whose empire fought for the central powers, was anxious to hide the flu epidemics of his troops from opposing allied powers.
“Ludendorff is famous for observing [flu outbreaks among soldiers] and saying, oh my god, this is the end of the war, ”Byerly said. “His soldiers get the flu and he wants no one to know about it, because then the French could attack him.”
The pandemic in the United States
The United States entered World War I as an Allied Power in April 1917. A little over a year later, it passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which criminalized saying anything. the government perceived it as damaging the country or the war effort. Again, it’s unclear to what extent the government was able to use this to silence the flu reports, or to what extent the newspapers self-censored for fear of reprisal. Whatever the motivation, some American newspapers have downplayed the risk of the flu or the extent of its spread.
In anticipation of Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan March in September, doctors tried to use the press to warn citizens that it was dangerous. Yet the city’s newspaper editors refused to publish articles or print letters from doctors about their concerns. In addition to trying to warn the public through the press, doctors also tried unsuccessfully to convince the Philadelphia director of public health to cancel the march.
The war bond fundraiser has attracted several thousand people, creating the perfect place for the virus to spread. Over the next four weeks, the flu killed 12,191 people in Philadelphia.
READ MORE: How American cities tried to stop the spread of the 1918 pandemic
Likewise, many U.S. military and government officials have downplayed the importance of the flu or refused to implement health measures that would help slow its spread. Byerly says the military medical service recognized the threat the flu posed to troops and urged authorities to stop troop transports, stop conscription and quarantine soldiers; but they met with resistance from the hierarchical command, the War Office and President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson’s administration ultimately responded to their calls by suspending a draft and reducing the occupancy of the personnel carriers by 15%, but other than that it failed to take the significant steps recommended by medical workers. General Peyton March succeeded in convincing Wilson that the United States should not stop the transportations, and as a result, the soldiers continued to fall ill. By the end of the year, approximately 45,000 US Army troops had died from the flu.
The pandemic was so devastating among the countries of World War I that some historians have suggested that the flu precipitated the end of the war. Nations declared an armistice on November 11 amid the worst wave of the pandemic.
In April 1919, the flu even disrupted the Paris Peace Conference when President Wilson presented a debilitating case. As when the British Prime Minister contracted the flu in September, the Wilson administration has kept the news from the public. Instead, his personal doctor told reporters that the president caught a cold from the Parisian rain.
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