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Published January 12, 2018

Flu is something that happens to all of us (in fact, as I write this I’m battling the dreaded sniffles, sneezes and aches) so it’s hard to think of it as life-threatening. But it really is; worldwide, it’s estimated to cause 290 000 to 650 000 deaths a year.

That pales in comparison to the flu epidemic of 1918, though. That was a pandemic of unprecedented proportions, and one we thankfully haven’t seen repeated – yet. As you can see on the infographic below, the death toll soared that year, far beyond the extent of previous years’ influenza seasons, beyond even the death toll of the First World War which preceded it. (WW1 is estimated to have caused about 37 million casualties, civilian and military. Although contemporary estimates put the Spanish Flu’s death toll a little lower, at 21 million, modern estimates place it considerably higher, between 50 and 100 million.)

And the scariest thing about it? We never cured it. The most deadly pandemic in history went away by itself. Flu viruses that circulate today are, as I understand it (I’m not an epidemiologist by a long stretch), fairly closely related to the 1918 virus. The virus behind the 2009 “swine flu” outbreak is a particular example; like 1918, it was the H1N1 strain, which prompted fears of an outbreak on the scale of the Spanish Flu, and brought the pandemic of 1918 back to the public consciousness. Those fears were, thankfully, unfounded, but we would be foolish to think the danger no longer exists.

What I’m saying is, take the flu seriously; if you or anyone close to you is particularly vulnerable, consider getting the flu jab before you get the virus, and if you come down with the flu, please take good care of yourself and don’t go spreading it around.

Spanish Flu

Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to everyone who has supported me with the podcast so far; particularly to my partner Dany for putting up with me on a daily basis, and to my good friend Mew whose Christmas present will be making a big difference in episodes to come.

Thanks also go to my first Patreon supporters, spicyboi and J Fay.

Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon means you can earn exclusive rewards like seeing your name here in future!


Sources and Further Reading:

WHO Influenza (Seasonal) factsheet

Selected records from the US National Archives

Slate – The Worst Pandemic in History

The Telegraph – The war was over – but Spanish Flu would kill millions more

Time – What Made the Spanish Flu so Deadly?

The World Almanac – 1918: La Grippe

PBS- American Experience: Influenza

The Independent- Flu: how Britain coped in the 1918 epidemic

CDC – Pandemic Influenza Storybook – Joseph and Stanley Garas In Memorial

Imperial War Museums Collections

Edwardian Promenade – Living With ‘Enza: The Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918-1919

1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Influenza Pandemic

New Zealand History – New Zealand’s First Woman Doctor

First Global Estimates of 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Mortality Released by CDC-Led Collaboration


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