According to estimates, 16 million people died in World War I. Estimates place the death toll from the 1918 influenza pandemic at 50 million. This terrible virus affected one-fifth of the world’s population. It had killed more individuals in a short period of time than any other sickness in recorded history.
The epidemic began to spread in two stages. The first stage, referred to as the “three-day fever,” occurred suddenly in the late spring of 1918. There were few reported deaths. After a few days, the victims recovered. That October, the illness returned, and this time it was much worse. Scientists, physicians, and public health authorities were unable to identify the sickness that was ravaging the population so quickly and violently, escaping treatment, and defying control. Within hours of their first symptoms, some individuals passed away. Others died after a few days; their lungs smothered them as a result of fluid entering them.
The plague affected everyone equally. From the heavily populated East coast to the most isolated regions of Alaska, it was pervasive in both urban and rural areas. Along with the elderly and young children, young adults—who are often unaffected by these kinds of infectious diseases—were among the populations most severely afflicted. Over 25% of Americans were affected by the flu. The average American’s life expectancy dropped by 12 years in a single year.
The 1918 influenza outbreak has been omitted from American history textbooks, which is an oddity of history. The papers chosen from the regional archives of the National Archives provide enough evidence of the disease’s documentation. By displaying these records, the disease is given the recognition it deserves as a significant global catastrophe.
PIC: Healthline, Center of Disease Control and Prevention, Hakai Magazine, The Washington Post, CIDRAP