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The Saga of Spanish Flu

Today, when the humanity is grappling with the ever-growing deadly impact of Coronavirus pandemic, which has so far claimed over 30 Lakh human beings all over the world, it becomes important to look back at yet another deadly pandemic, which took place nearly 100 years ago during the First world War that is said to have killed up to 5 crore people and infected 50 crore humans out of the then total world population of 150 crore people.

Yes, I am talking about the deadly 1918 influenza epidemic, also popularly known as “Spanish Flu”. The said epidemic was also Indian subcontinent’s most deadly epidemic that killed an estimated 1 crore Indians in the erstwhile British India. And over a century later, we are once again at the same point and in the same situation with India clocking over 3 Lakh infection cases every day and its highest ever tally of Coronavirus related deaths of over 3,100 people in a single day.

The “Spanish Flu” is a misnomer as it did not originate in Spain. The influenza outbreak is believed to have originated in Kansas United States in March 1918 from where it spread to France, Germany and United Kingdom carried by American forces fighting in the First World War. All countries involved in the First world War suppressed the news of the outbreak to maintain the morale of their fighting forces and Spain being the neutral country was the only nation that did not censor the news of the outbreak and hence the epidemic came to be known as “Spanish Flu” since then.

The epidemic came in four successive waves from 1918 till 1920, out of which the second wave caused by mutated strain of the influenza was most deadly that killed people of all ages, especially young. The second deadly wave of Spanish flue is said to have begun in Sierra Leone, Africa from transported American troops. From these moving troops, the mutated strain spread to entire North, Central and Southern America, entire African continent and Europe. From Europe the epidemic moved to Russian empire and then entered Asia. First it came to Arabian lands, then Iran and Central Asia and finally to Indian subcontinent where it caused humongous devastation.

In British India, the influenza flu became known as “Bombay Fever” because it first hit the shipping yard of Bombay that received returning British Indian soldiers from Europe after the end of World War I. The outbreak then soon spread to entire British India, both princely states and British ruled territories. It affected all regions from Himalayas to coastal lands and from deserts to tropical forests. From conservative estimate of death of 1 crore Indians to nearly 1.5 crore Indians, mostly young people and that too women were the most affected segment of Indian population. It is said that such was the scale of deaths that neither enough land was available for burial nor enough wood was available for cremation, because of which families simply immersed bodies of their dead loved ones in rivers. Nearly all rivers of British India were choked by pile of floating rotting bodies. British India lost nearly 5% of its population and this period was the only period of negative population growth in the recorded history of India, which saw a low population growth of only 1.2% during the decade of 1911-1921. Even Mahatma Gandhi is said to have been inflicted with the disease.

There are no clear-cut reasons and explanations for a high mortality numbers caused by the influenza epidemic. Due to less advancement in medical and biological science at that time, it is not clear if such high number of deaths were caused by more virulent mutated strains of the influenza. It is however believed that the overall malnourishment of world population played a great role in making people, both armed forces and civilian population vulnerable to severe illness due to their much weaker body immunity. This is also believed to be true for British India, where general population was underfed, physically weak and by and large malnourished.

Just like the current Coronavirus, most deaths during the outbreak of Spanish Flue were caused by bacterial pneumonia, a common secondary infection associated with influenza, which impacted human lungs by causing massive hemorrhages in the lungs triggering a cytokine storm or overreaction of body’s immune system leading to multi organ failures.

The most surprising aspect of the Spanish Flu epidemic has been its rather inconspicuous mention in the modern history of mankind. Given the scale of deaths that this epidemic caused both in Indian subcontinent as well as entire world, it is very unusual that there has been very little human remembrance of this catastrophic event. Historians, epidemiologists and medical researchers are surprised as to why the tragedy of such volume was forgotten so soon and virtually erased from the human memory and history books till the current wave of Coronavirus epidemic hit the humanity one year ago, after an outbreak in the interior Chinese city of Wuhan.

The present and continuing outbreak of Coronavirus has revived interest in Spanish Flu. Unfortunately, given the time lag and the fact that most people who remembered the time are now dead, it is very difficult to do any meaningful research on the epidemic of 1918. Most historical accounts of the influenza epidemic come from newspapers published at that time. The news about Spanish Flu in these newspapers however is not detailed as the world was more occupied with the events of World War 1. There were some medical experiments done decades after 1918 by taking samples from bodies of dead patients buried in frozen lands of Europe and some medical studies relating thereto was also published. But most historical, anecdotal and medical information remains sketchy of the catastrophic events of the great Spanish Flu.

The epidemic of Spanish Flu or the present Coronavirus pandemic and some other deadly preceding epidemics like SARS outbreak of 2001, Swine Flu epidemic of 2009 or Ebola outbreaks of Western Africa, tell us that more the humans interfere with the sensitive and delicate balance of nature, more it exposes the humanity to dangers of many yet unknown viruses, some of which may have the potential of extermination of human race. The overarching message of the Spanish Flu epidemic and current coronavirus pandemic is that humans must respect the boundaries of the nature and must not disturb the sensitive balance of natural ecosystem, which may unleash many potentially dangerous diseases upon the mankind.


The author is State Secretary of People’s Democratic Front. Views are his personal.

 

 

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Javed Beigh

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