COVID-19 surpasses 1918 flu as deadliest pandemic in U.S. history
COVID-19 is now the deadliest disease in American history, surpassing the death toll of the devastating 1918 flu pandemic. More than 676,000 people in the United States have lost their lives to the disease in the last year and a half since the World Health Organization first declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
For more than a century, the influenza outbreak of 1918 held that grim distinction. Over three distinct waves, the virus infected more than a quarter of the U.S. population and caused average life expectancy to drop by 12 years. Here’s a look at the catastrophic damage that it caused as it spread swiftly across the globe—and the implications for modern pandemics.
The first wave
Even though it is known colloquially as the Spanish flu, the first recorded cases of the 1918 influenza outbreak were in the U.S.—not Spain. In early March 1918, the final year of World War I, a soldier reported to the infirmary at an Army training camp in Fort Riley, Kansas, with a fever and other flu-like symptoms. According to National Geographic History magazine, more than a hundred other soldiers came down with similar symptoms within a few hours. (Here’s why some historians believe the virus originated in China.)
The disease quickly swept the world as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers deployed to the European frontlines of the First World War. Wartime censorship meant that the U.S. and European media were not permitted to report on the outbreaks. Spain, however, was neutral in the conflict. The country’s newspapers reported so extensively on the disease that it soon became known as the Spanish flu.
However, this early outbreak was not especially severe. Most people recovered within days, and some physicians debated whether it was truly influenza at all. As one Spanish news agency wrote in a cable to London at the time, “A Strange Form Of Disease Of Epidemic Character Has Appeared In Madrid. The Epidemic Is Of A Mild Nature, No Deaths Having Been Reported.”
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