Apr
28
2009

Why was it called the 1918 Spanish Flu, if it didn’t start in Spain?

Spanish Flu Death Chart 1918/1919 (PD)

Spanish Flu Death Chart 1918/1919 (PD)

The first outbreak of the Spanish Flu was noted in March 1918 in the Fort Riley military base in Kansas, although it’s possible that it had broken out earlier in the Far East, or even the previous year in Tibet or Austria.

However, it was August 1918 when a more virulent mutation of this swine flu was observed simultaneously in France, Sierra Leone, and Boston in the US. This marked the start of the global influenza pandemic.

Three months later the infection crossed from France into Spain. Naturally, the Spanish called it the French Flu. So why did the rest of the world call it Spanish Flu?

Recall that this took place during World War One. The US and France were participating in the war, and had imposed strict censorship. They didn’t allow their press to report on the pandemic, for fear of causing alarm and eroding morale.

Spain, however, was not fighting the war. The Spanish were officially neutral, and were heavily involved in humanitarian activities to improve the lives of prisoners of war. As such, they had no need for wartime censorship.

And so the Spanish papers reported the epidemic freely. It was from this source that most of the rest of the world learned about the flu, which they called the Spanish Flu.

The flu raged violently and spread rapidly, with most of the deaths occurring in the first six months. Perhaps half of the world’s population caught the flu. We don’t have exact numbers for those who died, but even by the most conservative estimates it exceeded twenty million—well above the fifteen million who had been killed by World War One.

By 1919 the war was over, and the Spanish Flu was on its way out too.

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