Why was the 1918-19 pandemic that killed 50 million people known as ‘Spanish Flu’?

The Spanish Flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people over three killer waves that spread throughout 1918-19, and infected a third of the world's population. But the deadly virus did not originate in Spain, so why is it called Spanish Flu? Plus, how should we talk about the new virus circulating the globe known as Covid-19?

Photo of flu patients during the First World War

Why is Spanish Flu called Spanish Flu? The H1N1 influenza virus is one of the deadliest disasters in history. It killed more people than the First World War – and in less time. But there are many misconceptions about the pandemic. Firstly, 50 million is a conservative estimate for the number of dead – the figure could be many times that number.

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There is also no way of being certain where Spanish Flu originated, although the trenches of World War I, where poor sanitation and disease was rife, are an often-cited contender. The filthy, rat-infested conditions undoubtedly affected the soldiers’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to illness.

It is thought the first cases were in military forts in the United States before spreading at an alarming rate to Europe. But yet the pandemic was called ‘Spanish Flu’ – again, a result of the war.

Spain was not hit especially badly compared to other countries but wartime censorship exaggerated the affects of the virus there. While Britain, France, Germany and the United States censored and restricted early reports, papers in Spain – as a neutral country – were free to convey all the horrid details of the pandemic.

This made it look much worse there, so the unfortunate name spread with the disease around the world.

This answer was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine


How should we name new diseases?

We recently interviewed Laura Spinney about pandemics for the HistoryExtra podcast. Here’s what she had to say about the origins of the Spanish Flu name – and why we should be careful about how we talk about the new coronavirus known as Covid-19…

Laura Spinney: “One of the few certainties we have about the Spanish Flu Pandemic is that it didn’t start in Spain. We actually don’t know where it did start – but we know it didn’t start in Spain. The Spanish felt, and to a very great degree were, stigmatised by this.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put out guidelines for how to name a disease. I think the motivation for that was mainly to avoid this kind of stigmatisation, this kind of kneejerk naming of a disease after the place it appears to first manifest itself, or the sector of the population or the animal it first appears in. Because remember, in 2009, H1N1 flu was initially called “swine flu”.

The swine flu name was unhelpful in many ways. For example, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of the country’s swine herd, which was mainly the property of the minority of Coptic Christians in that country, so their local economy was wiped out in one stroke. And in fact, by the time it was in humans, it was a disease that was being transmitted from human to human so it made no difference either. And in fact, to go back a little bit further in history, that swine flu was given to pigs by humans in 1918. So it came back from pigs to humans in 2009, you know, ironic historical reprisal.

You can also think about AIDS, which was initially called gay-related immune deficiency and stigmatised the homosexual community – this was unhelpful for everybody, including heterosexuals. Nobody thought about how it might be being transmitted in that community. Meanwhile, homosexuals were getting stigmatised for being the ones who transmitted HIV, so it was unhelpful to everybody.

So naming doesn’t help. And this time [with Covid-19] , I think, it’s really interesting. One of the small things we can applaud ourselves for is that we have not given this outbreak a stigmatising name. It’s not the Chinese Flu, it’s not the Pangolin Flu, it’s Covid-19, which may sound mundane but it’ll do the job.”

Read the full interview with Laura Spinney here, or listen to the podcast below

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Read more about the history of pandemics here