Why was the 1918-19 pandemic known as Spanish Flu?

Over three killer waves that spread throughout 1918-19, Spanish Flu killed an estimated 50 million people and infected a third of the world's population...

Photo of flu patients during the First World War

The H1N1 influenza virus is one of the deadliest disasters in history. It killed more people than World War I, 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.


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 article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine