On September 28, 1918, a parade of the Liberty Loan in Philadelphia triggered a huge epidemic of Spanish flu in the city. By the end of the pandemic, an estimated 20 to 50 million people had died worldwide.
The flu is a very contagious virus that attacks the respiratory system and can mutate very quickly to avoid being killed by the human immune system. Usually, only the very old and the very young are at risk of dying from influenza. Although a pandemic of the virus in 1889 killed thousands of people around the world, it wasn’t until 1918 that the world discovered how deadly the flu can be.
The most likely origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic was a bird or farm animal in the American Midwest. The virus may have traveled among birds, pigs, sheep, moose, bison, and elk, eventually mutating into a version that settled in the human population. The best evidence suggests that the flu spread slowly across the United States in the first half of the year, then spread to Europe via some of the 200,000 American troops who traveled there to fight for World War I. By June, influenza seemed to have mostly disappeared from North America, after having taken considerable toll.
READ MORE: How American cities tried to stop the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu
In the summer of 1918, the flu spread rapidly throughout Europe. One of its first stops was Spain, where it came to be known around the world as the Spanish flu. The Spanish flu was very unusual as it seemed to affect strong people in their prime rather than babies and the elderly. By the end of the summer, around 10,000 people had died. In most cases, hemorrhages in the nose and lungs killed victims within three days.
In early fall, the flu epidemic got out of hand. Ports around the world – usually the first places in a country to become infected – have reported serious problems. In Sierra Leone, 500 of the 600 dockworkers were too sick to work. Africa, India and the Far East have reported outbreaks. The spread of the virus among so many people also appears to have made it even more deadly and contagious by mutating. When the second flu wave hit London and Boston in September, the results were far worse than the previous flu strain.
READ MORE: Amid the 1918 flu pandemic, America struggled to bury the dead
Twelve thousand soldiers in Massachusetts contracted the flu in mid-September. Each division of the armed forces reported hundreds of flu deaths every week. Philadelphia was the hardest-hit city in the United States. After the Liberty Loan parade (celebrations to promote government bonds that helped pay off the Allied cause in Europe) on September 28, thousands of people were infected. The town’s mortuary, built to hold 36 bodies, now had to cope with the arrival of hundreds of people in a matter of days. The entire city has been quarantined and nearly 12,000 residents have died. Overall, in the United States, five in a thousand people have had the flu.
In the rest of the world, the death toll was much worse. In Latin America, 10 in a thousand people have died. In Africa it was 15 per thousand and in Asia 35 per thousand. It is estimated that up to 20 million people perished in India alone. Ten percent of Tahiti’s total population died within three weeks. In Western Samoa, 20 percent of the population has died. More people died from the flu than from all the battles of World War I combined.
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