Wetteraukreis.The corona virus has brought cultural life to a standstill not only in Wetterau, but throughout Germany and worldwide. The Wetterauer Zeitung takes this as an opportunity to shed light on the historical background of the current pandemic. We want to start with an article about the “Spanish flu” of 1918/19.
A deadly virus is raging around the world – the “Spanish flu” of 1918 leaves a deadly trail of unprecedented proportions. It infects every third inhabitant of the earth – around 500 million people. In just over a year, the “Spanish flu” kills at least 60 million people – as much as the two world wars combined. The latest estimates assume even higher numbers. About 2.5 percent of those infected fall victim to the virus.
For many medical historians, this pandemic is considered the worst epidemic in human history.
The first press releases came from Spain in May 1918: about eight million people – including King Alfonso XIII. – have been suffering from flu that has been spreading for several weeks. Almost every third inhabitant in the capital Madrid is said to have been infected. Close offices, shops, factories. Trams are no longer running. The Reuters news agency cables: “The course of the disease is harmless in nature. Deaths are hardly known so far.”
The epidemic is called “Spanish flu”. It only becomes known later that it has been spreading in numerous other countries since March / April.
In addition to Spain, Switzerland, Holland and the Scandinavian countries, Europe has been at war for almost four years. In December 1917, the United States entered the war. Mass slaughter has killed millions of soldiers and civilians. By the end of the war in November 1918, it was estimated that eleven to twelve million people had devoured this “primal catastrophe of the 20th century”.
Press censorship is strict in belligerent countries such as France, England, Germany and Russia. Governments and senior military officials there are not interested in objective reporting. They do not want to increase the population’s war weariness with negative reports.
In Germany, the press veiledly speaks of “lightning catarrh”. The trivializing expression “three-day fever” is used in the USA. French newspapers call the flu “purulent bronchitis”.
The first flu wave (spring / summer 1918):
Since the research of the Australian Nobel Prize in Medicine Frank Macfarlane Burnet in the 1970s, it has been known that the “Spanish flu” did not break out in Spain, but in the United States. So it wrongly bears its name. Camp Funston, Kansas trains over 50,000 recruits for their deployment in the European theater. On March 4, 1918, a cook named Albert Gitchell reported sick here. He has a high fever and severe body aches. In the next three weeks, over 1,000 other soldiers will be ill. The flu also occurs in other military camps.
In March / April 1918 tens of thousands of GIs are shipped to France and disembark in French Atlantic ports such as Brest. They bring the previously harmless virus to Europe. Entire units fall ill; Combat actions are stopped.
In the first two weeks of May alone, the English Navy reports over 10,000 cases of illness. French and British colonial units drag the “Spanish flu” into their home countries in North Africa, India, New Zealand, and Australia. Large cities worldwide are affected on all five continents. But even remote regions in Central Africa or the Pacific are not spared. Gerhard Kollmer