Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS -

Septem­ber/oc­to­ber 2018, Cana­dian Geo­graphic looks back at the 1918 Span­ish Flu

IIn the win­ter of 1916-17 in Éta­ples, France, an out­break of in­fluenza tore through a dirty and crowded Bri­tish mil­i­tary base of 100,000 soldiers squeezed onto just 12 square kilo­me­tres. Win­ter flu viruses were com­mon, mak­ing sea­sonal rounds through­out camps on the West­ern Front and around the globe dur­ing the First World War — but this one was dif­fer­ent. The virus now known as the Span­ish Flu killed 10 to 20 per cent of the (mostly young) peo­ple it in­fected, of­ten in as lit­tle as 48 hours. And as troops re­turned home from the front lines af­ter the war, the dis­ease spread, quickly turn­ing into a global pan­demic that would even­tu­ally kill an es­ti­mated 50 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide. The base at Éta­ples is just one of the the­o­rized ground ze­ros for the world’s dead­li­est flu pan­demic. As ac­claimed sci­ence writer Alanna Mitchell ex­plains in her story about the ori­gins and ef­fects of the Span­ish Flu in the Septem­ber/oc­to­ber is­sue of Cana­dian Geo­graphic, Canada was among the hard­est-hit coun­tries, los­ing some 50,000 peo­ple to the ill­ness. But, as Mitchell also notes, great losses prompted great changes (the cre­ation of the fed­eral Department of Health in 1919 was spurred by the out­break) and helped pave the way for to­day’s sci­en­tists to bet­ter pre­pare for the next global pan­demic. “The Span­ish Flu was pos­si­bly the most lethal in­fec­tious dis­ease in hu­man history and cer­tainly the worst since the Black Death in the Mid­dle Ages, yet it’s barely punc­tured the pub­lic con­scious­ness,” says Mitchell. “His­to­ri­ans have ig­nored it un­til re­cently and vi­rol­o­gists still don’t know for sure where it started or how it spread. It killed far more than the 17 mil­lion killed in the First World War, but the tragedy of those deaths has been sub­sumed by the tragedy and drama of the war. A cen­tury later, all those dead are fi­nally start­ing to get a voice.”

Span­ish Flu pa­tients and vol­un­teers at Col­lège La Salle in Thet­ford Mines, Que., in 1918 ( top). A 1918 poster about the in­fluenza epi­demic in Al­berta ( above).

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