Spanish Flu (1918)

Recent years have seen raised concerns about various flu strains, including H1N1 (avian flu) and H5N1 (swine flu). Flu viruses that mutate and reach humans for the first time can be highly virulent and deadly until human antibodies build defenses against them.

Statistically, the world is “overdue” for another influenza pandemic. The last one, dubbed ‘Spanish Flu’ took place in 1918.

Spanish flu symptoms began like any other flu, with heavy cold symptoms with a high fever that forced the sufferer to retire to bed. However, the Spanish flu came with a three day fever that could quickly reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Death would often come in the form of asphyxiation from drowning in their own fluid.

Around a third of the world’s population caught Spanish Flu and in some locations the death rate reached 80%. More people died of this virus than in the whole the First World War and more than 4 years of the Bubonic Plague. Others took months to recover.

Around 50% of the deaths were among 20-40 year olds, which breaks the norm for usual annual seasonal flu statistics where the very young and very old are more vulnerable. Molecular pathologists suggested their immune systems overreacted to the unprecedented virus and destroyed their lungs in an attempt to kill it.

It’s suspected that Spanish Flu had been circulating the globle in a minor manner for a few years before it became a pandemic. The first confirmed outbreak may have been in on an Army base in Kansas on 11 March 1918. Within a week of the first soldier falling ill, 500 soldiers had Spanish Flu. It spread across the United States during a time when 2m soldiers were preparing to ship to war in Europe. Soldiers may have introduced the virus to Spain, England, Germany and France. By May 1918 more than 10,000 British military men were sick enough that the naval fleet launch had to be delayed. The virus spread to Asia and, by summer, appeared to be on the wane. When the virus resurfaced in Boston, USA in August 1912, it was even more deadly with reports of people “dropping dead in the street”, and spread even more quickly than before. Morgues across the world were “packed almost to the ceiling” and there the capacity to nurse the sick in hospitals was overwhelmed.

Scarily, for most of the decade after Spanish Flu there was little understanding about why it was so deadly. The US CDC used the infected lungs of an Alaskan woman who’d been frozen in ice for decades to extract the extinct virus and isolated the H1N1 sequence: Spanish Flu began life as avian flu, a flu that usually only infected birds. It’s lack of precedence in humans meant they had no antibodies to fight it.

There have been more flu outbreaks that affected enough people globally to be deemed pandemics since Spanish Flu. They include Asian Flu in 1957, Hong Kong Flu in 1968 and, more recently, Swine Flu in 2009.

Flu - catch it poster       

Scares surrounding Avian Flu early in the millennium amounted to nothing; the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak was big enough to be declared a Pandemic by the World Health Organisation but, anecdotally, failed to kill enough people to really scare individuals.

However, early and prolific awareness campaigns were launched by most goverments in most counties and many suspect that the so called ‘Catch It, Bin It, Kill It’ campaigns played a significant part in preventing a more deadly outbreak. Fears therefore abound that complacency may be a problem in future flu outbreaks and prevent the same measures from being taken to prevent the same kind of death rate that occurred in 1918.

What can business continuity planners learn from Spanish flu and recent pandemics?

  • More information about Spanish flu.  Search online or see our bookshop.
  • People die of flu every year. Normal seasonal statistics are high enough to come as a surprise to many planners. A severe pandemic would increase these numbers exponentially and may change the demographic from the usually vulnerable very old and very young to the 20-40 year age bracket of people who are not easily able to take shelter at home for the duration of an outbreak.
  • Apathy and complacency could be a problem. Catch it, kill it, bin it campaigns may have played a significant role in preventing wider spread death but perceptions that ‘it didn’t happen then so it won’t happen now’ may impact events
  • There’s lots of advice available to planners. The World Health Organisation (WHO) offers definitive information, and many governments publish information on the web, including the USA and the UK. Use the links in this paragraph, check out our free business continuity planning tools, and google for anything else you need: if you need it, some one has probably created it.



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