Roughly one hundred years ago more than 33% of the world's population, about 500 million souls, were infected with a deadly disease that could kill them within the first 24 hours. Of those infected 50 million did die, and strangely this illness targeted young adults versus the aged or children.
In World War I, neutral Spain was the first to report flu deaths in its newspapers, so commentators soon nicknamed the pandemic ‘Spanish flu.’
Some influenza patients admitted to a Boston hospital in the morning of October 1918 would be dead by the evening, their bodies turning blue from lack of oxygen.
Many who suffered from it developed a deadly form of pneumonia, and their lungs filled with bloody fluid. They choked on the pinkish froth as they gasped for their last breath.
Hospitals reported an average 100 deaths a day, overwhelming morgues. This disease killed more American troops than those that died on World War I battlefields. The intensity and speed with which it struck were almost unimaginable, the worst global pandemic in modern history. These terrifying early reports were kept secret. Americans had joined the fight in 1917, bringing the Allies ever closer to victory over Germany and the Central Powers by the spring of 1918. The war had reached a turning point and neither side wanted to divulge any weakness.
For decades the origin of this modern day plague remained a mystery, however new research is placing the flu's emergence in a forgotten episode of World War I: the shipment of Chinese laborers across Canada in sealed train cars.
Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland says that newly unearthed records confirm that one of the side stories of the war—the mobilization of 96,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines on World War I's Western Front—may have been the source of the pandemic.
The 1918 flu pandemic struck in three waves across the globe, starting in the spring of that year, and is tied to a strain of H1N1 influenza ancestral to ones still virulent today.
The outbreak killed even the young and healthy, turning their strong immune systems against them in a way that's unusual for flu. Adding to the catastrophic loss of lives during World War I, the epidemic may have played a role in ending the war.
The pandemic killed more people in a year than the Black Death killed in a century, according to the book "The Great Influenza."
The dead included about 675,000 people in the United States. In just October alone, the worst single month in the U.S., an unthinkable 100,000 Americans died. Many were young adults in the prime of their life ranging in age from 20 to 40.
An outbreak of respiratory infections, which at the time were called endemic “winter sickness” by local Chinese health officials was found in records of that time by researchers. A year later Chinese officials identified the disease as being identical to the Spanish flu. It caused dozens of deaths each day along China’s Great Wall. The illness spread 300 miles in six weeks in late 1917.
China suffered a lower mortality rate from the Spanish flu than other nations did, suggesting some immunity was at large in the population because of earlier exposure to the virus.
New reports finds 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, Also found were medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917 ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms.
The Spanish flu reached its height in autumn 1918 but raged until 1920, initially gaining its nickname from wartime censorship rules that allowed for reporting on the disease's ravages in neutral Spain.
A British legation official in China reported in 1918 that the disease originally thought to be pneumonia was actually influenza. This information was found via searches of Canadian and British historical archives that contain the wartime records of the Chinese Labor Corps and the British legation in Beijing.
At the time of the outbreak, British and French officials were forming the Chinese Labor Corps, which eventually shipped some 94,000 laborers from northern China to southern England and France during the war. The idea behind this move was to free up soldiers who could then be sent to the front.
Shipping the laborers around Africa was too time-consuming and tied up too much shipping, so British officials turned to shipping the laborers to Vancouver on the Canadian West Coast and sending them by train to Halifax on the East Coast, from which they could be sent to Europe.
So desperate was the need for labor that on March 2, 1918, a ship loaded with 1,899 Chinese Labor Corps men left the Chinese port of Wehaiwei for Vancouver despite "plague" stopping the recruiting for workers there.
In reaction to anti-Chinese feelings rife in western Canada at the time, the trains that carried the workers from Vancouver were sealed, so Canadians would be ignorant of the contents. Newspapers were banned from reporting on their movement.
Roughly 3,000 of the workers ended up in medical quarantine, thought to be only suffering from sore throats when in truth they were infected with the Spanish influenza.
The Chinese laborers arrived in southern England by January 1918 and were sent to France, where the Chinese Hospital at Noyelles-sur-Mer recorded hundreds of their deaths from respiratory illness.
It is suspected that the Spanish influenza mutated and became most deadly in spring 1918, spreading from Europe to ports as far apart as Boston and Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Historian James Higgins, who lectures at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and who has researched the 1918 spread of the pandemic in the United States said, "I would say that the takeaway message of all of this is to keep your eye on China" as a source of emerging diseases. He points to concerns about avian flu and the SARS virus, both arising from Asia in the last decade.
The SARS outbreak claimed perhaps 775 lives in 2003, and avian flu A (H5N1) has killed 384 people since 2003, according to the World Health Organization, which is carefully watching for signs of an outbreak of the diseases. "We have seen a lot of emerging diseases travel around the world in recent decades," Higgins says. History has a way of repeating, he says, and research into the origins of the 1918 flu could help prevent a scourge like that from happening again.
The final debate on the origins could be settled with tissue sample from the time period before the onset of the epidemic, in 1916 to 1917, which so far has not been found in any burial sites.
Top health and science groups predict influenza pandemics are nearly certain to recur. With the growth of global travel, a pandemic can spread rapidly globally with little time to prepare a public health response. A pandemic could also arise if a strain mutates with or develops directly from animal flu viruses.
If an equal ratio of Americans died in a pandemic today, that would be an unimaginable 2 million Americans. That's the current population of the entire Las Vegas metropolitan area.
A new, lethal and highly infectious flu virus could break out in an unprepared megacity in any part of the world where the populations is crowded and there is poor nutrition and sanitation. It could catch a ride with international travelers before public health officials realize what is happening.
Specifically, avian influenza viruses such as H7N9 top pandemic threat lists, according to Johns Hopkins. Influenza and the potential for a pandemic are concerns that are always at the top of the list for experts who work with infectious diseases and public health. Pandemics ignore national borders especially if they're porous, social class, economic status, and even age.
Severe influenza epidemics tend to occur every few decades. Experts believe that the next one is a question not of “if” but “when.”
Source - NatGeo
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