Is history repeating? The Spanish flu of 1918

Contributed by Ida Milne

oxocrop[1] idaThe influenza A H1N1 [definitely not Mexican, resolutely not pig, perhaps novel] flu  has added interesting dimensions to my research subject, the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic in Ireland.  For a start, people suddenly seem interested,  rather than considering it a rather fusty topic.  Then, there is the element of reliving history; the panic which struck Mexico City when the authorities admitted after several months of increased levels of influenza-like illness that they had a problem must have been similar to that experienced along the east coast of Ireland in October 1918 when the virus was killing hundreds of people each week. 

In Mexico City, people jammed Benito Juarez International Airport to get a flight out of the country for themselves and their children.  In the Ireland of 1918, there was nowhere to run to, as the flu had already spread through the proximities of mainland Europe, and was also raging through Britain.  City families did try to send their children to relatives in the country, in the hope that the less populated areas would provide some kind of refuge.

‘Spanish’ flu [when the flu emerged in Mexico last month my pharmacist, Eduardo, asked indignantly why the Hispanics are being blamed again] killed in excess of 40 million people.  The moniker came because the flu was first reported in the early summer of  1918 by newspapers in Spain, unaffected by wartime censorship. By then, the US, French, British and German armies were already troubled by it. 

As different groups apply pressure on health authorities to prevent the current  influenza A H1N1 being given a tag that could wipe out an industry – so far Mexican tourism and the global pig industry are involved – one wonders whether pressure groups were deliberately playing  the blame game in 1918-1919. “Spanish” flu stuck, but at times it was called the Naples soldier, the French flu,  the  German flu…in spite of twenty first  century US scientists being  very eager to claim its origin in the States, it has surprisingly never been called the American flu.

In Ireland, there are 20,000 deaths directly attributed to the influenza, also an A H1N1 variant. Another 3,000 people died from pneumonia following influenza. These figures would suggest in excess of 800,000 cases here, given a death rate of 2.5 per cent.  During one week at the end of October, hundreds were reported ill in Naas, Dundalk, New Ross, Wexford, Gorey, Kilkenny, Bray, and thousands in Dublin.

These deaths occurred in three distinct waves.  After the first (and mildest) wave in the early summer, people questioned what all the panic had been about.  Are we are experiencing a similar denial this time?

Ida Milne is a third year PhD student at Trinity College, Dublin undertaking research on the Spanish flu in Ireland. Ida is the first outside contributor to Pue’s Occurrences.

Tuesday 2 June RTE 1 began its six-week documentary series called ‘Outbreak’ with  a look at the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Flu. Next week is the TB epidemic of the 1950s.

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21 Responses to “Is history repeating? The Spanish flu of 1918”

  1. Tom Cassidy Says:

    My wife is undertaking research into her family at the moment. There are two deaths in Dublin at that time, which may have been Spanish Flu related. The mother, 31, died on February 16, 1919 (she may have been pregnant) and a baby, 1, died the following August 2nd. They lived in Capel Street.

  2. Ida Says:

    The death in February 1919 would have been during the third wave of Spanish flu. The death in August is outside the peak weeks for the epidemic, but perhaps the baby died from flu related illness? The death certs (available from the GRO), if the deaths were registered, would give cause of death. I’d be interested to hear whether they are registered, and what they say. Thank you, Tom.

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