The Spanish Flu

The rapid spread of disease among the cramped conditions of military cantonment areas has been a problem for armies since time immemorial. The unprecedented scale and rapidity of the US military’s expansion in the wake of the America’s entry into the First World War made it especially susceptible. The US Army and Marine Corps, to include the National Guard began the war with 218, 265 men in uniform. Just 16 months later there were more than four million. Every one required the creation of brand new facilities to house, feed and train them. The cramped and sometimes unsanitary condition were ripe for outbreaks of disease.

In 1917, several outbreaks of the flu ravaged American training camps. Not especially noteworthy at the time, on 4 March 1918, company cook Pvt. Albert Gitchell reported to sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas with the flu. But Pvt Gitchell contracted a new strain dubbed H1N1, and he was first documented case of the virus. Unlike previous flu outbreaks which were generally only fatal to young children, the previously sick or the elderly, H1N1 targeted healthy adults, and was highly contagious. More than 500 cases were reported at Camp Funston and nearby Fort Riley over the next few days

The H1N1 flu virus quickly spread across the country with the troop trains. Just a week later on 11 March, the first case was diagnosed in Queens New York, where troops prepared to depart overseas for France. From New York, it spread to all parts of the globe.

Wartime censors kept the flu outbreak out of the newspapers and off the radio in countries that were fighting. However, the morale of the civilian population was not a concern in neutral countries, such as Spain. The flu epidemic dominated the headlines of Spanish newspapers, especially after Spain’s ruler, King Alfonso XIII, contracted the sickness. With the greater press attention, the world began referring to it as the “Spanish Flu”. A second deadlier wave broke out in August of 1918.

The H1N1 “Spanish Flu” pandemic infected nearly 1/3 of the world’s population between March and November, 1918. Reported cases dropped off dramatically that winter. But in the space of just nine months, nearly 80 million people succumbed to the Spanish Flu, or about 5% of world’s population.

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