New York City typist - at work on October 16, 1918 - wears a mask during the time of Spanish Flu. Image online, courtesy U.S. National Archives.
In 2003, another flu epidemic frightened the world’s population - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS as it has come to be known. That illness (which also seemed to quickly spread along transportation routes) strikes a person’s lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
To hold the virus in check, people (like those in Hong Kong and China) wore face masks, reminiscent of the time of Spanish Flu. And, because Spanish Influenza’s most deadly complication was pneumonia, it has been likened to SARS. But the two diseases are not the same.
Spanish Influenza (unlike most other forms of flu) targeted young adults in the prime of their lives. And it stumped physicians who thought that medical science would be able to combat such epidemics. As Dr. Victor Vaughan observed, physicians of the day "knew no more about the flu than 14th century Florentines had known about the Black Death.”
Although the cause remains unknown, Spanish Flu is believed to have started in China as a swine virus. (That is another reason people think SARS is similar to Spanish Flu although, according to some reports, SARS originated with a civet cat in China.)
In America, the first cases of Spanish Flu originated with swine in Kansas. Young farmers, turned soldiers, carried the illness to military training posts and American troops brought it overseas.
To put the death toll in perspective, 9 million people died from World War I hostilities. Spanish flu killed more than 20 million people. (Recent scholarship puts the death toll even higher - to 50 million, or more.) The virus ... which caused all the trouble ... was so small it could not be cultured and remains mysterious today.
How did it get from pigs into humans? Where did the epidemic begin?