The Influenza Epidemic of 1918, also known as the Spanish Flu, killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. To put this in perspective, that is more than those killed during World War I and more than any illness in recorded history. The recent emergence of the Ebola outbreak in Africa that is now spreading across the globe makes it important to take a look back at what this illness that attacked nearly one fifth of the world’s population.
The Spanish Flu emerged in two waves, one during the late spring of 1918 and one during the fall. It is reported that some victims died within hours of contracting the disease while others died within days. Despite the fact that many U.S. History courses overlook the illness and its impact, no part of America was spared from its reach. It affected urban and rural areas, from the densely populated Eastern seaboard all the way to the remotest parts of Alaska. While most influenza killed the elderly and young children, the Spanish Flu was different, exacting its most fatal toll on those between the ages of 20 and 40.
The outbreak spread across the globe from North America to Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific. It was never concluded where this particular strain of influenza originated, though some speculate that it was a result of World War I. The disease eventually affected one fourth of the population in the United States. Public health ordinances were enacted to control the spread of the disease with stores prohibited from holding sales and funerals limited to 15 minutes. There were eventually shortages of health care workers, medical supplies, coffins, morticians and gravediggers.
While some may feel that the impact of the Spanish flu is not relevant to the recent Ebola outbreak. The fact that neither disease has a cure and the fact that both have a global reach makes them have more in common than one may think. As Ebola continues to spread and a cure remains elusive, no one can be completely sure exactly how profound and long-lasting its impact will be.