War is hell. The First World War, from 1914 to 1918, resulted in the death of 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. At least 20 million more were wounded.
As horrible as that sounds, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919 caused at least 50 million deaths, some say 100 million. Beginning in January 1918, it quickly swept around the world, infecting 500 million people. This epidemic was different from most flu epidemics as the highest mortality rate was among the young and strong. It is now thought that the immune system of the healthiest people overreacted to the virus and made it far more deadly. The young, the old, and those with compromised immune systems were more likely to survive. This has not been the case with most subsequent outbreaks of influenza.
The 1918 epidemic was caused by a Type A H1N1 virus. The outbreak appears to have begun at a military staging and hospital camp at Étaples, France. Historian Mark Humphries of Memorial University of Newfoundland thinks that the disease may have originated from the 96,000 Chinese labourers who worked behind the British and French lines on the Western Front. He cites archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the Spanish flu.
Wartime censors limited the reporting of the flu outbreak in the combatant nations. Spain was neutral during the war; thus news reporting from Spain was allowed and inadvertently this epidemic became known as the Spanish Flu.
The disease is known as La Grippe in French, I suppose meaning that one is in the grip of the virus. The French name was still commonly used 100 years ago by English-speaking people. At some point English-speaking people switched to the Latin word influenza, which means that one is being influenced by the virus.
Symptoms of the flu include coughing, fever, tiredness, aching muscles, joint pain, headaches and chest discomfort. These symptoms do not usually accompany a cold. Sore throats and nasal discharge are symptoms of the common cold and are less often associated with the flu. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may occur in children with the flu but not often in adults. What is often mistakenly called the “stomach flu” is usually gastroenteritis, caused by a rotavirus. Allergy symptoms may mimic cold symptoms, but are not so easily confused with the flu. The most severe flu symptoms generally last only a few days, but it may take two weeks or more for full recovery.
The influenza virus is still a serious health concern. In a normal year more than 12,000 Canadians are hospitalized due to the flu, and 3,500 die. I don’t have information for other provinces, but here in Saskatchewan free immunization is offered to all residents over 6 months of age. The vaccine contains an inactivated virus and cannot give you the flu.
I have had recurring bouts of allergic rhinitis, the common cold and the flu all my life, not always being able to distinguish among the three. Time and experience, plus numerous consultations with doctors, have taught me that most of those episodes were due to allergic reactions to dust, pollen, moulds and various other things. However, an allergic reaction can reduce my immunity to the flu virus and I have had some rather lengthy bouts with the flu, leading to pneumonia in at least one case. I have been getting the annual flu shot for at least ten years now and it has definitely reduced those bouts.