It’s National Influenza Vaccination Week, and we’re taking a look back to 1918, the time of the “Spanish” influenza pandemic. When the illness emerged, several useful vaccines had already been developed: smallpox, typhoid fever, and rabies, for example. Scientists and physicians tried many different approaches to develop influenza vaccines during the pandemic even though the cause of influenza was not clear. We look at several of them below.
No other epidemic has claimed as many lives as the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918-1919. Worldwide, at least 40 million people died as this virulent illness swept through city after city (some estimates put total deaths closer to 70 million). Newspaper reports described people dying within hours of first feeling ill. The mortality rate was highest among adults under age 50, who were, for unknown reasons, particularly vulnerable to serious disease resulting from this strain of influenza.
The first reported cases of an unusual influenza appeared in U.S. Army camps in Kansas in early spring 1918. Later that spring, officials reported large numbers of cases from Europe, though this flu did not seem particularly dangerous. However, influenza became more deadly in late summer. Soon waves of infection moved through towns, nations, and continents, overwhelming hospitals and medical personnel. Because of wartime censorship, reports of influenza were not widely distributed, but news from Spain continued to flow. The name Spanish influenza came from the devastating effects of the flu in Spain in autumn 1918. More