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Ask Geoffrey: How Did Chicago Deal With 1918 Spanish Flu? 

By Erica Gunderson
via the WTTW television station (Chicago, IL) web site 


The so-called Spanish flu infected one-third of the population of the entire world, some 500 million people. It is generally said to have killed between 20 million and 50 million people, although some estimates are as high as 100 million. In the U.S., about 675,000 died from what we now know was an H1N1 avian virus.

Unlike COVID-19, which is mostly lethal in older people, mortality in the 1918 pandemic was high among children under age 5, and adults from 20 to 40 years old.

The first thing to know about the Spanish flu is that it wasn’t Spanish

Spain’s media was first to report it widely because the news wasn’t blacked out there as it was in other countries during WWI. This gave the rest of the world the false impression that it started in Spain. The first recorded outbreak actually happened in the U.S., at a military base in Kansas in March 1918. The actual origin of the virus has never been conclusively determined, but theories on its birthplace range from New York to France to China.

This first wave of influenza wasn’t widely noticed as American soldiers mobilized in large numbers for WWI. This first outbreak didn’t spread very widely and it didn’t get much notice in America because focus at the time was on the country’s entry into World War I.

As troops traveled back and forth to Europe, a second, more virulent wave broke out in the fall of 1918. This was the one that caused the most deaths. Just as that was subsiding, the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Parades and parties celebrating the armistice caused a third outbreak that lasted through the spring of 1919.

In Chicago, the first outbreak didn’t have much more of an effect than the regular flu, but the second Spanish flu outbreak arrived with a vengeance starting on Sept. 8, 1918, when a few sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of the city fell ill. Within two months, the virus had killed 8,500 people in the Chicago area.

Read the entire article on the WTTW web site.

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