The Spanish Flu Pandemic

The flu didn’t start in Spain, so why have they been blamed?

The great influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 was the one of the worst disasters in human history. It is difficult to determine with pinpoint accuracy, but experts say that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people were killed by the flu world-wide. Compare that with World War I, where “only” 18 million people were killed, or World War II, where 60 million people were killed. In fact, more people died in the first year of the 1918 pandemic than in the entire 14 year history of the Black Death: Bubonic Plague of 1347-1351. So you see that it’s one of the worst things that ever happened.

It has been know as the Spanish Flu (or sometimes the Spanish Flu Pandemic) ever since the outbreak in 1918. Experts disagree, however, on where the outbreak started. Studies have suggested northern France, Belgium, Kansas, and China as potential places of origin. One place that was certainly not to blame was Spain. So why is it called the Spanish Flu? The reason is that Spain was neutral during WWI, and the Spanish government had not placed wartime censorship on the press there. But wartime censorship was in place in almost all of the rest of Europe and in North America. Therefore, when flu cases started to appear in Spain, the Spanish press reported it. Most other countries suppressed news of flu outbreaks in their countries, but did not stop their media from reprinting the Spanish news. Not surprisingly, it seemed to much of the public thought that the flu first broke out in Spain and then spread. Alas, Buzzkillers, the “Spanish flu” is a myth, and the Spanish health-care system has unfortunately lived with that stain ever since.

Further Reading:

John Barry, The Great Influenza: the Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2005)

Howard Phillips and David Killingray (eds), The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918: New Perspectives (2003)

Gina Kolata, Flu: the Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It (1999)

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