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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The `Spanish Lady' - The Truth about Swine Flu.

Posted Friday, May 22, 2009

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The Spanish Lady

or

The Truth about Swine ‘Flu

Exactly ninety years ago this month as the injured troops from the Great War were at last being repatriated, an overseas visitor was bringing chaos, disruption and death to Britain in the shape of the `Spanish Lady’.

Worst Disease in Human History

The country was devastated as the `Spanish Flu’ pandemic infected over 75% of the British population, and proved fatal to over a quarter of a million people nationwide.

This virulent strain of influenza killed more than twice the number of troops during the final year of the war than were actually killed in battle during the entire length of the conflict from 1914 to 1918.

Yet conversely whilst every town and village has a memorial listing the names of those who fought and died for King and country in the Great war, there are no memorials to Britain’s 225,000 civilians and 31,000 troops who perished at the hands of the Spanish Lady in 1918 - 19.

Now, with the World Health Organisation continually on red-alert following recent outbreaks of the deadly H5N9 `Swine Flu’ virus – and amidst fears of a prospective global disaster caused by it’s transference to humans, it is with some degree of trepidation that we recall the almost forgotten global flu pandemic of 1918-19.

Heartbreak

It is hard to imagine the heartbreak of the many families whose menfolk had battled through four years of bloody trench warfare in the mud and barbed-wire and survived, only to learn that their father, brother or son had tragically succumbed to the Spanish Flu on the way home, or perished in a camp in northern France whilst awaiting repatriation.

Estimates vary but most authorities accept that the final world-wide death toll for the period from the spring of 1918 to the summer of 1919 was between 75 and 100 million, with 47 million dying in India alone, thus making it the most devastating disease in human history.

Yet whilst the Great War has been held responsible for the creation of a `lost generation’, the `flu pandemic has been relegated to relative obscurity, the collective memory of it being subsumed by the war.

It is precisely because the outbreak occurred at the height of the conflict that contemporary records are scarce; the war had taken its toll of communications, and there was a news blackout in all national newspapers across Europe, so it was only in hindsight that the world came to realise it had a global pandemic on its hands.

Notifiable Disease in November 1918

An early indication of this is evidenced by the fact that it wasn’t until November 1918, over a year after the outbreak began that the medical authorities officially made the so-called `Spanish Flu’ a Notifiable Disease.

The label `Spanish Flu’ was itself a misnomer; Spain, being a neutral country, was the only one with a free press and early in 1918 Spanish newspapers reported that a wide-spread `flu epidemic was sweeping Europe, giving the number of deaths in Spain. Thus the epidemic became known as the Spanish Flu, or the Spanish Lady.

Speculation was rife for many years about the origins of the virus, with China and France the leading contenders, but recently released medical evidence from the American Scientific Institute of Homeopathy suggests that America was the source.

The report states that of around 70,000 American troops who were vaccinated with an anti-flu serum during training before being posted overseas, about 47,000 of them died from the influenza virus!

Others carried the virus into Europe, and especially into the trenches of Northern France, from where it rapidly infected the whole of Europe leaving millions dead in its wake, as it spread across the channel to England.

The Virus Strain

Another misnomer was the actual strain of the virus, which was always believed to have been the H1N1 type - until October 2005 when the World Health Organisation published a report on the findings of clinical research on a reconstruction of the lethal 1918-19 strain and concluded that “the virus was entirely avian”, a mutant strain of the H5N1 `bird flu’ virus – the spectre of which still stalks the earth!

It was not until march 2006 that the W.H.O. fully understood the different characteristics of the human strain of the virus known as H1N1, and the Avian strain known as H5N1, and reported the presentation of two different symptoms.

The human flu virus (H1N1) attaches itself to molecules in the cells lining the nose and throat, whilst the avian flu virus (H5N1) binds itself to molecules located deep in the lungs. Clinical trials have shown that most patients infected with the H5N1 virus present symptoms in the lower respirational tract, with rapid progression to pneumonia, followed by death. These were exactly the same symptoms presented during the 1918-19 pandemic, which seems to prove that the Spanish Lady was in fact born in America, and was, in fact, bird flu!

In Chesterfield as in most of Northern Britain the `Spanish Lady’ struck in three successive waves, the first wave arriving in the summer of 1918, and within ten weeks it had claimed 19 lives in Chesterfield, and 147 in the rest of the County.

The second wave came during the early Autumn, devastating whole societies and by mid-January had killed another 178 people in Chesterfield and a further 1, 332 throughout the rest of Derbyshire.

`The Three Day Fever'

Owing to the war and the lack of communication, the pandemic took the population by almost complete surprise, causing panic and consternation everywhere. At first it was known as the `three-day fever’ because after three days of coughing and sneezing, the patient either survived – or died.

Plague Symptoms!

Symptoms slightly resembled those of the plague, and in the latter stages the victim developed black and blue blotches on the face and body, the result of cyanosis, caused by a lack of oxygen. As with pneumonia, with which the virus was frequently confused, the lungs were attacked and the victims slowly drowned in their own fluid.

When the virus hit Australia late in 1918, the purple and black cyanosis skin blotches were taken as a sure sign of the plague, and in Sydney the authorities ordered the burning down of the old rat-infested waterfront of large warehouses and dockyards as a safeguard against the further spread of the disease.

Dense populations were hardest hit, with the death toll for London alone being over

25, 000 by the end of 1918, and in a nation already devastated by four years of war and economic hardship, and a labour force already deprived of its menfolk between the ages of 18 and 40, the country virtually ground to a standstill.

In Chesterfield the authorites were forced to close all the schools and public amenities; the Queens Park was closed, outdoor markets were suspended and everyone was advised to stay indoors and travel only if absolutely necessary; bus services were cancelled, railways were closed to passengers and only goods trains operated; post went undelivered for weeks on end, as did coal, bread, milk and other commodities, as almost two thousand people were struck down with the flu.

Labour shortages caused temporary shut-downs in local factories, collieries went on short-time through lack of available manpower, and almost every industry suffered (bar the funeral directors!) as the death toll steadily rose.

The third wave struck in January 1919 and by the first week of May another 42 inhabitants had perished in Chesterfield, and another 500 in the rest of the County, making a total of over two thousand victims in Derbyshire alone, with five hundred and seven in Chesterfield.

Ninety years on and the spectre of another global pandemic is again striking fear and trepidation into the hearts of medical professionals as the World Health Organisation closely monitors the spread of the latest mutation of the lethal H5N1 virus.

Following on from the very first confirmed case of a person being infected with `bird flu’ in Guangdong Province, China in 1997, the virus has spread and claimed victims in a number of countries, with Indonesia topping the list with 138 cases, whilst Vietnam has had 109, of which 52 proved fatal.

There are also reported cases of fatalities in Egypt (58), China (32) and Thailand (25), whilst other deaths have occurred in Cambodia (8), Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Bagladesh, Azerbaijan and Nigeria.

Thankfully there have been no instances of any fatalities in this country – yet, and it is encouraging to note that whilst the clinical process of isolating and identifying this deadly virus previously took a week, scientists at Nottingham University have just invented a portable devise which does the same job in just two hours!

In May 2007 the UK Health Protection Agency reported at least four human infections with low pathogenic avian influenza H7N2, which had mutated from infected poultry in Norfolk, and in June last year the same agency reported a highly pathogenic strain of mutated avian flu H7N7 in a commercial flock of chickens in the UK.

One of the major problems facing medical scientists in the race against time to prevent another global flu pandemic is the ability of the virus to mutate and thus, to evade every effort at human control, and experts predict it will be years before a possible solution is found.

The latest pandemic outbreak of so-called Swine Flu is merely another mutation of the H5N7 virus, which itself is a mutated version of an earlier `Avian Flu' virus, and doubtless, with its inate ability to mutate, the virus is eminently capable of staying one step ahead of human control!

However, it’s comforting to know that should the Spanish Lady or one of her mutant offspring come calling again, although we’ve got little or no protection, at least we've now got an early-warning system!

Contact Tom: reblee.tom@gmail.com

 
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