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).