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The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance in History

Authors:
European Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences
2016; 2(4): 23-28
http://www.sciencepublishinggroup.com/j/ejcbs
doi: 10.11648/j.ejcbs.20160204.11
The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the
H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance in History
Gregory Tsoucalas1, *, Antonios Kousoulis2, Markos Sgantzos1, 3
1History of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Thessaly, Larissa, Greece
2London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health, London, UK
3Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, University of Thessaly, Larissa, Greece
Email address:
gregorytsoucalas@yahoo.gr (G. Tsoucalas), antonis.kousoulis@gmail.com (A. Kousoulis), sgantzos@med.uth.gr (M. Sgantzos)
*Corresponding author
To cite this article:
Gregory Tsoucalas, Antonios Kousoulis, Markos Sgantzos. The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance
in History. European Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences. Vol. 2, No. 4, 2016, pp. 23-28. doi: 10.11648/j.ejcbs.20160204.11
Received: September 14, 2016; Accepted: October 12, 2016; Published: October 28, 2016
Abstract: It was the year 1918, when a new flu pandemic launched worldwide. Our study purports to depict the general icon
of the 1918 pandemic epoch, for the readers to shape an overview of the events of the era. We have used some of the most
important manuscripts concerning the pandemic to compose a historical note on the outbreak that almost annihilated the world.
The name “Spanish Flu”, was defined wrongfully due to the scientific observation and research made in Spain, while the first
appearance of the virus had been made in USA. The outbreak was devastating, causing millions to die, more than the First
World War casualties. During new experiments upon the old virus strain, it was proved that the 1918 pandemic was caused by
an influenza A - subtype H1N1 progenitor strain. Our mini review, enlightens some aspects of virus blast, in an effort for the
readers to luxuriate in the tale, myths, and the true story of the 1918 pandemic.
Keywords: 1918, Spanish Flu, Influenza A, H1N1, Pandemic, History of Medicine
1. Introduction
The majority of all human infectious diseases and
pandemics have originated through the cross-species
transmission of microorganisms from animals to humans, and
vice versa. The influenza A virus, eloquently illustrated how
our global interconnectedness can affect the worldwide
distribution of a new virus, or virus strain, one that may
otherwise have remained a regional phenomena in an era
before the globalized world [1]. A thorough reopening of the
history archives will demonstrate the fact that most of the
worldwide spread pandemics had their point zero in the
continental Asia, and Africa from where they had spread to
rest of the world. The three great plague pandemics had
different geographic origins and paths of spread. The Justinian
Plague of the 541 AD, started in central Africa and spread to
Egypt and the Mediterranean. The Black Death of the 1347
AD, originated in Asia and spread to the Crimea then to
Europe and Russia. The third pandemic, that of the 1894 AD,
originated in Yunnan, China, and spread to Hong Kong and
India, then to the rest of the world [2]. During 1918, a flu
pandemic deviated from this axiom. Our study aims to create a
mini review for the inside story of the 1918 pandemic for the
readers to form a general conception for the era.
The 1918 pandemic, an influenza that engulfed nearly
every part of the world, known also as the “Spanish Flu”,
was firstly appeared in the USA and in April of the same year
in a British constitution in a French city called Rouen, where
it has been called “La Grippe”. During 1918, Europe was
devastated by the First World War, and Spain as a neutral
country had all the time to deal with the disease and its
consequences and claim the name. Hence the most reliable
scientific facts for the disease came from Spain, giving the
international community the false impression that Spain was
the most affected zone. The flu had travelled alongside with
the military forces in the entire France and from there to the
rest of Europe, closing its loop in the USA [3-5].
The pandemic infected 3% to 5% percent of the world's
population including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic.
The Life expectancy dropped by about 12 years. The British
scientific team led by virologist John Oxford of “Saint
Bartholomew's Hospital”, investigated thoroughly the first
24 Gregory Tsoucalas et al.: The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance in History
wave, identifying the major troop staging and hospital camp
in a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern
France, the Étaples, as almost certainly being the centre of
the 1918 influenza pandemic. The deadliest virus spread
began, terrifying the whole world, killing previously healthy
young adults [6-7].
2. The Spanish Flu pandemic
It was the fifth year of the World War I, when the influenza
pandemic had been widespread from America to all over
Europe, presenting an especially virulent influenza pandemic
struck [Figure 1]. The pandemic hit an unprepared and
suffering part of the world in three consecutive waves during
spring, fall and winter in a period of twelve months. Despite
the fact that the flu had also appeared in India, in New Zealand
and in South Africa, the dominant impression was that it
mainly concerned Europe, Asia and North America. A peculiar
oddity was that the virus dispersion happened worldwide
during the summer and autumn, as influenza is usually
worsens during the winter time. The second vague appeared
during September to October of 1918 and spread again
geometrically, but this time only Australia remained unaffected
and that until 1919 [8-11]. Yet, the first wave of the flu had
largely gone unnoticed in the spring and summer of 1918. The
spring wave did not even receive a mention in the index of
1918 volume of the journal of “The American Medical
Association”. The disease at the beginning had been mild, the
mortality was not unusually high, and the world had been
preoccupied with the events of the war. However influenza
was brewing quietly, with localized outbreaks inside the U.S.
military camps in early 1918. By April the disease had spread
to France, most probably carried there by the American troops
[Figure 2]. In the United States, the disease was first observed
in Haskell County in Kansas, spreading further towards
Canada and Alaska, were entire communities were perished.
India, Indonesia, Samoa, Japan, Ethiopia, and South Africa
were hit too [Figure 3 & Figure 4]. At the end of April
influenza did reached neutral Spain where the disease was
widely publicized, “A strange form of disease of epidemic
character has appeared in Madrid”, as written during that era.
Influenza then, acquired its spurious name, “The Spanish Flu”
[Figure 5]. In Spain thaw, a different nickname was adopted, a
name that came from a musical operetta (zarzuela) titled “La
canción del olvido” (The Song of Forgetting), which
premiered in Madrid during the first epidemic wave. Spanish
poet and essayist Federico Romero (1886-1976), one of the
librettists, quipped that the play's most popular musical
number, “Naples Soldier”, was as catchy as the flu. Ifluenza
aquired its new nickname, the “Naples Soldier” flu (Soldado
de Nápoles) [11]. Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and Poland
were the next countries for the flu to be transmitted [Figure 6].
By May, “Spanish flu” had reached Greece [3, 12-13].
In Greece, on July 19th of the year 1918, in an article
entitled “Spanish flu”, appeared the first recorded reference
for the appearance of the influenza pandemic in Greece. It
was at the Peloponnesian town of Patra, where a few days
earlier, a flu outbreak had shown its malignant character.
Physicians of the era had recognized the flu's similarity to
that which had been occurred in Spain. On October the 6th
“Thessalia Newspaper” [Greek: Θεσσαλία] published the
whole telegram from the “Hellenic Ministry of Internal
Affairs”, which depicted the European scientific knowledge
of the era, “The disease germs enter the body through the
mouth, and generally from the respiratory system. Frequent
gargles, mainly with an oxygenated water and antiseptic
cream, may have some preventive action. The disease spreads
by coughs and transmitted by air. Therefore it is
recommended the avoidance of mentally stress and overwork,
as well as concentrations of each kind. All schools must be
close, and meticulous maintenance of cleanliness of lingerie
and hands is proposed. In particular, it is highly
recommended to avoid close contact with every person who
displays flu symptoms” [12]. Objects that were constantly
being used by the sick people, like tickets in the tramways,
pencils at schools, blankets at hospitals, or in the army, even
the holy water in the churches, were also considered as
means of transmission. It was the mayor of the French city of
Lyon Eduard Herriot (1872-1957), who had firstly
understood the significance of the public hygiene and took
some effective measures to face its extreme contagiousness.
Thus, by functioning as a kind of one-man sanitary squad, to
keep deaths to the minimum, he disinfected the tramways,
forbade the public gatherings and even the funeral
processions, he had organised a system of rapid burials,
while the holy water should be mixed with antiseptics for the
protection of believers. Worldwide The public health
departments distributed gauze masks to be worn in public
[Figure 7 & Figure 8], while hospitals embrace the “fresh air
cure” for the new virus, by simply arranging beds or tents
outside the main builds [Figure 9] [14].
Figure 1. Map depicting the Spanish flu pandemic 1918, Patterson KD, Pyle
GF. The geography and mortality of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Bulletin of
the history of medicine, 1991; 65(1): 4-21.
Figure 2. A pneumonia porch at the US army Hospital in Aix-les-Bains,
France, 1918. Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C.
during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919.
European Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences 2016; 2(4): 23-28 25
Figure 3. Women in Japan wearing the gauze masks (left side). The island
trader ship “Talune”, on 4 November 1918, transferred the virus to Western
Samoa.
Figure 4. Children orphaned by the 1918 flu pandemic in Cempaka, photo
courtesy of University of Indonesia's School of History (left side). South
African nurse at her brother's grave in a vast graveyard of the flu epidemic
1918 (right side).
Figure 5. Vintage poster for the 1918 flu pandemic in USA, stressing out its
name “Spanish Influenza” (left side). Vintage cartoon warning for the flu
epidemic 1918 (right side).
Figure 6. Chart depicting the death rates among the major cities during the
epidemic 1918-1919 (New York, London, Paris, Berlin).
Figure 7. Policemen in Seattle city, wearing masks made by the Red Cross
during the influenza epidemic. December 1918, American National Archives,
record number 165-WW-269B-25.
Figure 8. Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard
without a mask. 1918, American National Archives, record number 165-WW-
269B-11 (left side). Traffic cop in New York City wearing a gauze mask,
American National Archives, record number C713040-Group 64-IWM.
Figure 9. Lawrence, Massachusetts, “Fresh Air Cure” for the new flu.
Outside rows of hospital tents outdoor in the sun, photo by Bettmann-Corbis.
Even thaw, the medical and scientific communities had
developed new theories and applied them to prevention,
diagnostics and treatment of the influenza patients,
undoubtedly, the measures taken were to say at least
insufficient. The custom officials were ordered to allow
everyone that seemed to be healthy to cross countries [5].
The key factor that pushed for the worldwide influenza
occurrence was the increased logistics improvement due to
modern transportation systems that made easier for
soldiers, sailors, and civilian population to spread the
disease rapidly to every corner of inhabitant areas [15].
With the military patients coming home from the war with
battle wounds and mustard gas burns, hospital facilities
and staff were burdened to the limit. This created a
shortage of physicians, especially in the civilian sector, as
many had been recruited for service with the military.
Since the medical practitioners were away with the troops,
only the medical students were left to care for the sick.
The shortage was further confounded by the added loss of
physicians to the epidemic. “Red Cross” provided
specialized nurses to collaborate with the Public Health
Departments all around Europe an America [Figure 10]
[16]. This fascinating and extremely dangerous virus that
caused such a huge pandemic killed a big part of the
inflicted population in a percentage of 2 to 20%, as
opposed to the usual flu virus, which presents a mortality
26 Gregory Tsoucalas et al.: The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance in History
rate of 0.1% [17]. The fatal casualties of the diseased had
reached the number of the fifty million victims [18],
(France: 100.000 deaths, England: 220.000, USA:
550.000), more than the entire number of the victims of
the First World War [19]! Even in areas where mortality
was rather low, a significant percentage of the general
population was incapacitated, resulting much of everyday
activity to be hampered. In some communities the
majority of the stores were closed, or the owners required
customers to postpone, or leave their orders outside the
shops. An influenza-phobia was spread among the
common people. This pandemic had been described as
“the greatest medical holocaust in history” and may have
killed more people than the Black Death, caused by the
bubonic plague [20].
A unique feature of this pandemic was that it mostly killed
young adults, while 99% of the deaths occurred in inflicted
aged under 65 years old, with more than half concerning the
diseased between 20 to 40 years of age. This was an unusual
distribution, since influenza was, and in fact is, normally
deadlier among the very young, aged under 2 and the very
old, aged over 70, and milder among the patients in their
prime. The fact that the sensitive fractions of the population
have had a better immune response could be explained by the
partial protection due to their exposure to the previous
Russian flu pandemic of the 1889 [Figure 11] [21]. In fast
progressing cases death was occurred primarily due to virus-
induced pneumonia, while the slower progressing diseased
had featured secondary bacterial pneumonias. In many
patients neural involvement led to mental disorders, which
were appeared [5]. Both morbidity and mortality were
unusually high [3]. Some deaths were the result of
malnutrition and famine due to the war [15], while a great
number were resulted due to the overdose of the aspirin drug
[22].
Unfortunately the two year Spanish flu pandemic deprived
the life of some important members of the affected
communities, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, French poet
(November 9, 1918), Max Weber, German political
economist and sociologist (June 14, 1920), Larry Chappell,
American baseball player, (November 8, 1918), Sophie
Halberstadt-Freud, daughter of Austrian psychoanalyst
Sigmund Freud, (1920) and Edmond Rostand, French
dramatist, best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac,
(December 2, 1918), while Joseph Joffre, French World War
I general, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, American president,
survived the infection [23].
Scientists, recent years, somewhere between 1996 and
2005, have used tissue samples from deep frozen victims to
reproduce the virus strain for a thorough study. Not
everyone was so enamored of the Frankenstein-like
experiment on such a lethal viral monster but it provided
some valuable historical information [3]. The researchers
have concluded that the virus binds with its HA-protein
towards sialic acid receptors on host cell surface and kills it
via a cytokine storm [24], a bond that explains its unusually
severe nature and the concentrated age profile of its victims.
The Spanish flu pandemic during 1918 was caused by an
unusually virulent and deadly influenza A virus strain of the
subtype H1N1. Modern analysis has proved the virus to be
particularly deadly, as it triggers a cytokine storm, which
ravages the stronger immune system of young adults,
causing death waves among them. On the other side, many
researches suggested that as the samples survived, were all
from patients of the second wave, when the virus re-
emerged in an extremely virulent fashion, we may not be
certain of the first wave's virus strain, and that could be a
progenitor of the H5N1 subtype [17]. Phylogenetic analyses
suggest that the 1918 virus HA gene, although more closely
related to avian strains than any other mammalian sequence,
is mammalian and may have been adapting in humans
before 1918. Of all mammalian H1s, those of the 1918
viruses are most similar to their avian counterparts.
However, the 1918 HA-virus gene has accumulated enough
non-selected, mammal-associated changes to place it
consistently in the mammalian clade phylogenetically.
Swine were the first animals to present the disease during
1918 [25]. Nevertheless it was an influenza A pandemic
[17, 25].
In 1918 the French bacteriologist Charles Nicole (1866-
1936) [Figure 12], had came to the conclusion that the strain
originated in a mammalian species. Alongside with his
colleague Lebailly C, came to the conclusion that the cause
of the flu had to be a virus that can be filtrated. The real
etiologic factors of the flu, the viruses of the
“Orthomyxoviridae” family, were identified by Richard
Edwin Schope (1901-1966) [Figure 13] in swine, during
1931 [10, 26]. This significant discovery was followed by the
isolation of the human virus by the British virologist Patrick
Playfair Laidlaw (1881–1940) [Figure 13] and his colleagues,
during 1933, before George Keble Hirst (1909-1994), the
famous American virologist, in 1941 was finally able to
understand an important ability for the study of the virus, the
haemagglutination [27]. Meanwhile it was in 1933, when the
use of the newly electronic microscopes that allowed the
virus to be visible, while during 1935 Frank Macfarlane
Burnet (1899-1985) [Figure 12], cultivated the virus inside a
chicken egg. This progenitor of the modern H1N1 virus had
evolved with unremitting mutations leading the medical
community to a cursive battle against the mutated influenza
virus-A [10].
Figure 10. American nurses of the “Red Cross”, ready to intervene for
recovering patients.
European Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences 2016; 2(4): 23-28 27
Figure 11. The font page of the “Petit Parisien” newspaper including 4
illustrations of a medical tent in the Parisian Hospital Beaujon, “La Tende
des Malades dans le Jardin de l' Hôpital Beaujon”, 1890 (left side). A map
depicting the Russian flu pandemic, Graphische Darstellung Des Auftretens
Der Insluenza-Pandemie In allen Erdtheilen in 16 verschiedenen
Zeitabschnitten, von Mai 1889 bis October 1890 (right side).
Figure 12. Charles Nicole at microscope, Pasteur Institute of Tunis, photo
by Henri Roussel- Roland Huet - Personal collection (left side). Macfarlane
Burnet, photo by William Dargie 1960-1961, The National Portrait Gallery
(right side).
Figure 13. i) Richard Edwin Schope (1901-1966), courtesy of the
Rockefeller Archive Centre, ii) Patrick Playfair Laidlaw (1881–1940), iii)
George Keble Hirst (1909-1994), portraits (from left to right).
Figure 14. The avian and mammalian viruses strains through mutations
(right side). Triple-reassortant swine influenza, Influenza A - subtype H1N1
virus strain, reconstructed after an electronic microscope depiction.
3. Hypotheses About the Point Break of
the Virus
Various hypotheses of the epidemic's starting point emerged
soon after the first wave. Some hypothesized that flu
originated in East Asia. French Claude Hannoun, the leading
expert of the 1918 pandemic for the “Institute Pasteur”,
suggested that the first strain of the virus was likely to have
come from China, mutating in America somewhere near
Boston before spreading to France, with the movement of
troops, causing the pandemic. Other hypotheses such as Spain,
Kansas, and Brest are also mentioned by researchers [28].
4. Epilogue
The Spanish influenza virus was a progenitor of the
modern influenza A - subtype H1N1 virus, and accomplished
to be spread throughout the world, killing more than the First
world War. As a zoonosis, Influenza A viruses are notorious
for their continuous in-field genetic interplay among avian
species, swine, and humans, leading to an endless variety of
new virus strains and the unpredictable onset of new
pandemics. By tracing the origins of such deadly viruses, we
may alert ourselves towards such threats. History could teach
us both how a virus could cause a pandemic, and what
measures we could plan and energize to confront local and
global outbreaks. Since the discovery of the exact cause of
the influenza A, that is the demonstration of its viral nature,
and the description of the characteristic properties of the
virus, scientists and physicians struggle to discover effective
means of prevention through vaccination against a virus
eternally mutating [Figure 14].
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