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A Little Flu History: Why We Take It So Seriously

“I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened up the window and in flew Enza.”

That’s an old nursery rhyme. It was said by kids during the influenza (flu) pandemic of 1918. This was the year the Spanish flu was in the air. It started in September as WW1 was ending. It would travel around in less than nine months. It would go on to kill around 25-50 million people worldwide, including over 500,000 Americans.1-5

Some experts suggest these estimates underestimate the numbers of people affected. This is because there was no method of knowing for sure which person’s actually had the flu. Plus, some places did not keep accurate records of who got sick and who died. So, it’s for this reason that statistics about the impact of the flu of 1918 vary depending on the source.5

Let’s put this into perspective

On November 11, 1918, WWI came to an end. The war had lasted 4 years and 3 months. It had killed 9 million people. So, the flu killed more people in 9 months than the war did in 4 years.

In the fall of 1347, a different sort of pandemic ravaged the world. It was called the Black Plague or Bubonic Plague. This plague would last 3 whole years. Some estimate it killed over 25 million people. Others estimate it killed over 100 million people.1-5

The plague of 1918 may have been the deadliest killer the world has ever seen.5 It was so deadly that every effort was made to erase its memory from existence. People just wanted to forget it ever happened. This includes journalists, who barely mentioned it in newspapers and magazines. It includes professors, who barely mentioned it in their textbooks.5

Yet, the memory did not completely fade away

There were two groups of people who refused to let the memory fade. One group was the scientists, and the other was the medical researchers. Their job was to keep the memory alive and to learn from it. Their goal was to prevent another major flu pandemic.5

Despite their efforts, there were two other pandemics during the 20th century. The first was the Asian flu in 1957 that killed around 2 million people. The second was the Hong Kong flu in 1968 that killed around 1 million people.4

And the influenza virus continues to cause havoc. In the U.S. alone, every year the flu causes an estimated:7

  • 31.4 million people to visit their doctors
  • 200,000 to be admitted to hospitals
  • 3,000 to 49,000 to lose their lives.

Worldwide, the flu:4

  • Infects 5-20% of the population
  • Causes severe symptoms in 3-5 million people
  • Kills 250,000 to 500,000

What to make of this?

The pandemic of 1918 should act as a reminder of how deadly the flu can be. Modern medicine has certainly advanced to the point that the flu can usually be controlled. You can even prevent it by taking appropriate actions.

Still, the flu is a nasty little virus that can still cause havoc, especially for asthmatics. It can hit us hard. And it can be deadly. So, that’s why we need to take it seriously. That’s why we need to be sure to get our annual flu vaccinations.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Hakim, joy, “A History Of Us: War, Peace, And Alll That Jazz,” 2006, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, page 21-22“
  2. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Stanford University, https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/, accessed 11/4/18
  3. Hall, Mandy, “I Had A Litte Bird -- It’s Name Was Enza,” planetwavesweekly.com, http://www.planetwavesweekly.com/parallel/articles/little_bird.html, accessed 11/4/18
  4. Wang, Quinhua, Yizhi Jane Tao, editors, “Influenza: Molecular Virology,” 2010, Caister Academic Press, Norfolk, U.K., Preface
  5. Kolata, Gina, “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It,” 1999, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, pages 17, 19, 21, 45, 48, 53-54
  6. Bruegels, Pieter, “The Triumph of Death,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-diseases/the-plague/, accessed 11/4/18“
  7. Flu Prevention,” CDC Foundation, https://www.cdcfoundation.org/businesspulse/flu-prevention-infographic, accessed 11/4/18

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