1918 Flu

The 1918 flu, nicknamed “Spanish flu”, is due to a (H1N1) strain particularly virulent and contagious flu that has spread in 1918-1919 pandemic. This pandemic has made 30 million deaths according to the Pasteur Institute, and up to 100 million according to some recent re-evaluations. It would be the black plague pandemic the most deadly in the history in a short period of time, before 34 millions of deaths (estimate).

His nickname “Spanish flu” comes the King Alfonso XIII of Spain was seriously ill (in June 1918, 70% of the population of Madrid was contaminated in three days), which contributed to make public this epidemic. In addition, only the Spain – not involved in the first world war – was, in 1918, freely publish information about this epidemic. French newspapers speak therefore of the “Spanish flu” that made havoc “in Spain” without mentioning the French cases that were kept secret not to know the enemy that the army was weakened.


Apparently originating in China, this virus would past, now controversial assumptions, pork then humans, duck or a hypothesis also controversial directly from bird to human. She quickly won the United States, where the virus had mutated to become more deadly. This new strain is thirty times more deadly than common flu with 3% of patients. It became a pandemic, when it moves from the United States to Europe and then around the world by exchanges between the cities European and their colonies.

She made about 408 000 deaths in France, but censorship of war in limita echo, newspapers announcing a new epidemic in Spain, neutral country and therefore less censored, then the epidemic was already its ravages in France. It took place mainly during the winter of 1918-1919, with 1 billion sick, and 20 to 40 million deaths, according to first very imprecise estimates of the lack of statistics at that time. In the early 21st century, the maximum of the range remains unclear but was brought to 50-100 million, after integration of retrospective assessments concerning countries Asian, African and South American.

In a few months, the pandemic was more victims than the first world war ended that same year 1918; some countries will still be affected in 1919.

The progression of the virus was overwhelming: outbreaks of infection were located in several countries and continents in less than three months, and share both and of the United States in seven days. Locally, two or even three waves successive, that appear to be linked to the development of transport by ship and rail including, and troop especially.

This pandemic has been aware of the international nature threat epidemics and diseases, and of the imperatives of health and of a monitoring network to deal with. There is thus one of the clauses of the Charter of the League, the desire to create an international Committee of hygiene, which will eventually become the world Organization (who).

Medical impact, statistical anomalies

Deaths were mainly young adults, which may come as a surprise: young adults are usually the most resistant to the flu generation. This was first explained by the fact that this age (including for professional reasons or war) group moves more or live in places where she met many people (workshops, barracks…). The multiplicity of contacts increases the risk of being contaminated. This finding was made by historians (including at the outbreak of cholera in Liège in 1866).

In fact it is the immune system of this age too vigorously responded to this new virus, triggering a “cytokine storm” damage all organs, at kill number of patients.

It is estimated that 50% of the world population was contaminated (either at the time 1 billion people), 60 to 100 million people died, with 60 million dead consensus. An article in the Lancet in 2006, directed by researchers who have studied the records of death of 27 countries, shows that due to this influenza mortalié varies by a factor of 30 depending on the region and is correlated with the average per capita economic income: 10% of average more per capita income is down 10% of mortality (inversely proportional linear correlation). The link between the mortality of this epidemic and poverty is thus established.

This flu is characterized by a very strong contagion: one in two contaminated. It is characterized by an incubation period of 2 to 3 days, followed by 3-5 days of symptoms: fever, weakening of immune defences, which finally allow the appearance of complications normally benign, but here fatal in 3% of cases, is 20 times more than the “normal” flu It does however that weaken the sick, dying from complications arising therefrom. Without antibiotics (yet discovered for 20 years by Duchesne, but recognized ten years later and used only in the early 1940s), these complications could not be constrained.

The mortality was due to bronchial bacterial superinfection, but pneumonia due to the virus. The preferential attainment of young adults could perhaps be explained by relative immunization of older persons having previously contaminated by a virus near.

The virus of 1918

The genetic characteristics of the virus could be established through the conservation of tissue in recent autopsies on dead Inuit and Norwegian preserved in permafrost (frozen soil of the Nordic countries). This virus is a H1N1 flu.

Father, unknown strain virus: virus influenza source, strong contagion but normal virulence which, by mutation, gave the Spanish flu virus. The father virus was identified and followed rigorously since April, and until June 1918, while it is probably as early as the winter of 1917-1918 in China.

The Spanish flu virus, H1N1 strain: high virulence virus apparently appeared in the United States and having finally killed more than 21 million people worldwide. the appellation includes generally also its “virus father”. This more lethal version occurs in two deadly waves, one of mid-September to December 1918, the other from February to May 1919. All continents and all populations have been severely affected.

Through the work of several teams of researchers, especially American, it was possible in 2004 for the first time to artificially synthesize the virus of 1918.

Consequences of the Spanish flu

The Committee for hygiene of the League of Nations (SDN), ancestor of the who, was created following this epidemic.

Famous victims

  • Guillaume Apollinaire, poet French
  • Edmond Rostand, playwright, writer and Director French
  • Egon Schiele, Austrian painter
  • Rodrigues Alves, President of the Brazil
  • Joe Hall, British ice hockey player
  • Mark Sykes, British Councillor who died in Paris during the peace agreements (Sykes-Picot agreement)


Technically, its own pathogenic characteristics are not étudiables because of the absence of strain, no levy was unable to be kept in a good enough State.

It is therefore only by studying the family of flu, as a whole, can understand its mechanisms which boil down to this:

  • a very strong contagion, inducing an epidemic or pandemic, behaviour
  • high variability, resulting in varying virulence and the ineffectiveness of immunization from one year to another,
  • the virulence of this particularly large strain (severe weakening), as well as
  • the virus weakens the immune defences, it is not source of death, complications that accompany the flu that are fatal by the degree of weakening of the body.
  • The absence of antibiotic (which have not stopped the viral illness but only bacteriological complications) was also critical.

Finally, with regard to the consequences, the key is awareness of the biological threat around the world, that an outbreak in China could eventually threaten the population of the U.S., Europe, and all the States of the world. There followed the establishment – by League – of a body of health and medical surveillance, who later became the world Organization (who).

It should also be noted, given cycle of recurrence of fatal influenza epidemics are apart, maximum found, 39 years, the last dating back to 1968, the who provides “statistically” the emergence of pandemic influenza deadly by 2010 to 2015. That is why, in recent years, a number of studies are suddenly on the Spanish flu virus, some to recover intact, tangibly étudiables strains to enable the building of adequate defences. It also explains rapid and massive mobilization, in 2009, for the start of pandemic of swine flu, known as influenza A. Avian influenza (H5N1) and crystallizes not only tangible medical risks, but also much more abstract fears.

The pandemic of 1918-1919 was, with 30 million deaths according to the generally accepted consensus, the first great modern pandemic. It is one of the largest human pandemics, comparable in number of victims to the plague and AIDS. The latter however continues to be beyond the 24 million already posted.


Britain and the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic: A Dark Epilogue, by Niall Johnson. Routledge, London and New York 2006. ISBN 0-415-36560-0

Flu colonial, by Olivier Appollodorus and Serge Huo-Chao-Si, ed. West 2003 winds. ISBN 2-7493-0096-7. This comic tells the return to the country, after the great war, poilus of the meeting without the knowledge with the flu.

Edward Cullen, one of the central characters in the Saga Twilight was dying of the Spanish flu in 1918 just before becoming a vampire.

The First Horseman of John Case, where the guru of a sect seized the body of miners buried in the permafrost of an island in the Arctic Circle, is from the Spanish flu virus, by genetic engineering makes it more difficult to detect by the immune system.

Contagion, Robin Cook, the paperback, 1995, “epidemiological” thriller where there is question of bioterrorism, including in connection with the Spanish flu of 1918.

ReGenesis, Canadian television series. The Spanish flu is storytelling arc of the first season.

The Event, American series by Nick Wauters. The Spanish flu is reactivated from an infected body found in the Siberian basement to eradicate the human race.

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