The Spanish flu virus was an H1N1 strain, similar to, but far more deadly than the one that caused the Swine flu pandemic in 2009. No-one knows where it began but scientists and historians have suggested that the virus started at an army camp, like Camp Funston in Kansas, USA, or the Allied field hospital in Étaples, Northern France.
Spanish flu infected almost the entire world. Only American Samoa, St Helena, and some remote islands in the South Atlantic escaped unscathed.
The global nature of the First World War directly contributed to the rapid worldwide spread of Spanish flu. The geographical reach of the virus was intensified by the mass movement of people and livestock, as fighting came to an end and troops began to go home. Soldiers worried about bringing the flu with them to infect their families. Tragically some arrived home to find their communities devastated and entire families wiped out.
Some countries attempted to enforce quarantines in an effort to keep the virus out. Watching the crisis develop from afar Australia had time to implement a nation-wide maritime quarantine. However, even this was only able to keep the virus at bay for three months, with the first reported cases in Melbourne appearing in January 1919.
In America the city of Philadelphia was particularly badly hit, with the Health Bureau recording 75,000 cases during September 1918 alone. Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed by the numbers of patients needing care and soon the medical staff began falling sick too, including forty nurses working at the Philadelphia Hospital. Public services collapsed under the strain, by mid-October the city’s morgue housed 500 bodies awaiting burial. Horse drawn wagons patrolled the streets looking for the abandoned dead.
It was a similar story in Britain. By the end of October some 1,400 officers from London’s Metropolitan Police Force were off sick and there were reports that 61 people had collapsed in the city’s streets in one 48 hour period.
Many cities, including San Francisco and Seattle made the wearing of face masks compulsory. These gauze masks became an iconic symbol of the pandemic but in reality were little use in stopping the spread of the virus.