Spanish flu: the truth about great epidemics

Cases of Spanish flu soldiers of the US army in the hospital (1918). Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com

Five hundred million people who are infected, one hundred million dead – the famous “Spanish flu” was raging 100 years ago. Some researchers think that an epidemic influenza broke out in 1918, the greatest pandemic in human history.

A large-scale epidemic could not fail to influence the course of history: for a century the researchers of different specialties studying the effects of Spanish flu, and trying to figure out why the epidemic has reached such proportions. Not without speculation, myths and misconceptions. What really happened in 1918 and why did this happen?

Despite the fact that a deadly flu is called Spanish, this happened not due to the fact that Spain was, the first cases of infection. According to one of the basic versions, because of military censorship in the countries participating in the First world war, the press in Germany, Austria, France and the UK did not report the epidemic. Spain also maintained neutrality and in Spanish Newspapers were the first message about the terrible flu.

Because of this, the notion that Spain began a triumphal procession of the disease around the world. In fact, evidence of this fact there is no assumption that the flu came from Asia or from the United States.

Although some researchers believe that the virus that caused the deadly epidemic was more deadly than most of the other known strains, the results of several studies indicate that in fact it is not too different from the strains that caused the epidemic in other years.

Such a large number of victims associated with poor nutrition and terrible sanitary conditions during hostilities. Also, it is believed that many people died from bacterial pneumonia that arose as a complication of a viral infection.

Effective antiviral drugs currently do not so much – mainly the treatment of influenza is symptomatic, facilitates the condition of patients.

The researchers found that many patients who have contracted the “Spanish flu” died as a result of poisoning with aspirin. The doctors recommended the sick to take truly massive doses of this drug to 30 grams per day. Now it is safe to dose up to 4 grams. The use of aspirin in such numbers provoke many complications, particularly bleeding.

However, this version has been criticized due to the fact that in those regions where the aspirin in this dose was not prescribed, the mortality rate was so high, this means that the drug had no significant effect on the number of victims of influenza.

Combatants on both sides were infected with influenza and therefore we cannot say that one of the opponents was weaker than the other due to infection. However, circumstances specific to wartime – the simultaneous accumulation of a large number of people, unsanitary conditions, hunger, contributed to the spread of the virus.

Scientists were able to examine the body of a soldier who contracted the flu in a period of terrible epidemics. It appeared to be an American soldier buried in Alaska. In 2005, researchers deciphered the sequence of the viral genome. In a few years, scientists infected by this virus in monkeys that led to the emergence in animals of symptoms characteristic of the “Spanish flu”. Moreover, infection caused hypercytokinemia, also known as cytokine storm – a strong immune system response, consisting in the emission of huge amounts of cytokines. Cytokine storm affects the entire organism, often proving lethal. A similar reaction could develop and have contracted the “Spanish flu” patients, also becoming the cause of their death.

Is it possible such a serious epidemic in our day? Experts differ, but many are inclined to think that now the probability of such a large-scale pandemic is still not high. The level of hygiene and sanitation during the century increased significantly, and increased the awareness of the people – we all know about the need to wash hands and to get vaccinated against influenza.

Doctors and patients know more about how to care for the sick and prevent the spread of infection: is known about how the virus spreads, what are the complications, and to fight the accession of bacterial infection antibiotics are used.

Despite all that, influenza pandemics occur regularly every year taking of human life. However, the researchers hope that humanity still managed to make conclusions and acquire a significant store of knowledge, so the “Spanish flu” will not happen again.

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