1914. Just as 476 rang the death knell of the Roman Empire, 1066 created Norman England so did 1914 signal the beginning of our modern age. Industry and war mixed in a lethal cocktail from which fascism and communism fizzed. As empires clashed and populations shifted like never before, the greatest scourge on humanity was not war, but pandemic. What became known as the Spanish Flu infected almost one in five humans and killed up to 100 million worldwide.
A British research team found that the virus was carried by birds, then transferred to pigs and then to soldiers kept in close proximity in France. Others have claimed that it was carried to Europe by 96,000 Chinese labourers drafted in to bury the dead behind the lines of the Western Front. Nobody can say for sure. What can be said with certainty is that the movement of troops carried the killer virus to each corner of the globe.
The virus somewhat unfortunately became known as the ‘Spanish Flu’ because the uncensored press in Spain were the first to report the epidemic. Almost all national editors were shackled by wartime censorship and governments did not want to further reduce morale among their people. Although understandable, preventive early measures would have certainly reduced the numbers affected.
An example of the rapid spread of the virus is Fort Riley in Kansas. The flu had been reported by a rural doctor in January 1918 hundreds of miles away. The first patient in the base was diagnosed on 4th March. One week later 500 men were showing symptoms. Within 24 hours there were patients in New York. As ships left the eastern seaboard for the confined conditions of trench warfare, the flu spread throughout Europe like wildfire.
By the end of 1919 the only populated place in the world where the flu did not reach was a collection of small islands deep in the Amazonian rainforest. In 24 weeks the flu killed more than the HIV virus did in 24 years. Mass graves of victims stretched from Boston to Belfast, Tokyo to Toronto. Western Samoa was the worst place affected in the world with 90% of the population contracting the virus and 30% dying. Once the worst was over approximately 3% of the global population had died.
As our modern age busily acknowledges it’s centenary, grim prophecies have been murmured comparing our world with that of 1914. As one great empire wanes, another is rapidly coming into the horizon. Skirmishes in Europe have caused nervous glances east and this week our newspapers are warning of a deadly disease going global. Could ebola be our Spanish Flu? Most likely not. Although the movement of people today is considerably greater than 100 years ago, the instant transmission of communication has meant that diseases can be prevented before they need to be cured.