Thursday 22 March 2018

100 years ago this month - the start of the world's deadliest flu epidemic

In March 1918, a cook at Fort Riley in Kansas, USA reported to the infirmary with a 'bad cold'. By noon, 100 men were sick. More than 40 at the camp would die. With America and its allies caught up in the dreadful conflict of the Great War, the authorities tried to keep the news as quiet as possible from the enemy.

But it soon became impossible. For 12 days in May, the British fleet could not take to the sea because 10,000 sailors were ill. The disease appeared to strike with frightening speed. The Times wrote of people being 'perfectly well' at ten o' clock, but 'prostrate' by noon. 

Another odd thing was that unlike most flu epidemics, this one seemed to hit the young and fit harder than the old. More than 30,000 American soldiers would die of the disease, with a top doctor declaring at one point that it was more dangerous to be in a camp in the US than on the front line in France.

Across the world, what became known as 'Spanish flu' is estimated to have claimed about 70 million lives, while the First World War killed perhaps 17 million in all. Famous victims included the painter Egon Schiele, while King George V, the Kaiser, Woodrow Wilson and Walt Disney caught it, but survived.

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

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