In 1918-19, the Spanish Flu burned its way through the world’s population of two billion in less than two years, killing more people than died in combat among the 19 nations involved in five years of fighting during World War I.
As World War I was ending, an even bigger threat loomed—the Spanish Flu, which followed in the wake of mass troop movements during the war, and ravaged the armies on both sides of the trenches. In fact, the Spanish Flu may have played a decisive role in ending the conflict; it is believed that the flu dramatically weakened the German Army and caused its last great western offensive to fail in 1918, bringing the war to a close.
In the spring of 1918, Spain, a neutral power, did not have wartime censorship and so was the first to report the epidemic that subsequently became known as the Spanish Flu, the Indian Flu, the Naples Soldier and other names around the world. The flu, however, was thought to originate in Canton, China, although the first recorded cases occurred at a U.S. Army base in Kansas. At first, the flu seemed mild, although millions caught it, eight million in Spain alone, including King Alphonso XIII.
As summer turned to fall, it turned deadly. The flu burned its way through every continent except Antarctica. Doctors were helpless against the scourge. Public authorities shut down public places such as churches and theaters. Some even passed laws against sneezing in public. People wore gauze masks in public. Wherever the flu struck, people displayed the best and worst of human nature—courage, charity, fear and prejudice.
In October, the epidemic peaked in the U.S. and Canada. Thousands were dying every day. Then the number of cases declined until the Spanish Flu disappeared the following July.
Some 22 million Americans got sick and more than 675,000 died out of a population of 103.2 million. As a result of the Spanish Flu, the average life expectancy of Americans dropped by 10-13 years. Globally, the Spanish Flu killed 40 to 100 million people, or up to five percent of the world’s population of two billion. About one billion caught it. Based on today’s population, this is the equivalent of more than three billion people catching it and 130 to 320 million people dying.