Spanish Flu: The Pandemic That Changed the World

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Spanish Flu

The Pandemic That Changed the World

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This year marks 100 years since the end of what was called “the war to end all wars.” From 1914 to 1918, following the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, humanity found itself embroiled in a conflict the likes of which the world had never seen. It was to become the deadliest human conflict in history thus far, killing approximately 16 million, and wounding 25 million more.

Sadly, it would be eclipsed only a few decades later by World War II, but at the time no one had experienced anything like World War I before.

After four long years of bloody conflict, the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, afterward marked annually as Armistice Day. However the deaths didn’t stop. In fact, it was only the beginning.

A deadly killer—the 1918 Spanish Flu

In the early months of 1918, people in Europe, the United States and Asia began getting sick with an illness that brought on fevers, nausea, body aches and diarrhea. Initially, the first wave of the illness was relatively benign, and most individuals who contracted it recovered. The disease was discovered to be a form of influenza. And, as expected, when the normal flu season ended things seemed to improve.

That improvement was short-lived, however. As the late spring and summer months went on and the fall of 1918 began, a second wave of influenza had begun to spread. By October and November the entire world was dealing with the repercussions.

What set this second wave apart from the first was its virulence and the rapid onset of death in those who contracted the illness. Some who came down with this variant of influenza died within hours of exhibiting symptoms, their skin turning blue and dark spots appearing on their cheeks. Their lungs filled with a frothy red fluid, and they suffocated to death.

Around the world, the numbers infected by this insidious virus and the numbers who died after contracting it grew rapidly, and a curious thing was discovered—this particular variant of influenza disproportionately killed people in the prime of their life.

While most illnesses tend to cause higher mortality rates in the very young and the elderly, the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak was different. The highest mortality was found in populations aged 15 to 44, the people who would seem to have been more able to successfully survive the illness.

In fact, so many in this demographic died between 1918 and 1919 that the U.S. life expectancy was lowered by 12 years.

As the virus spread around the globe, it infected an estimated 500 million people— a third of the world population in 1918. There were few areas around the world that hadn’t been affected by the virus, and few families that hadn’t been impacted. When the dust settled at the end of 1919 and the early months of 1920, between 20 and 50 million people had lost their lives in this pandemic.

The actual death toll numbers are impossible to ascertain since most countries weren’t able to keep accurate records due to the large numbers of those who died, but all historians agree that the virus killed more than the war did.

The war itself certainly contributed to its spread as large-scale worldwide troop movements, importing of mercenary soldiers from every corner of the world, and the cramped and highly unsanitary wartime conditions helped contribute to the rapid spread of the virus in the late summer and early fall of 1918.

Some historians actually credit the Spanish Flu and its spread with weakening the Central Powers and helping to lead to the Nov. 11 truce.

Certainly the virus had changed the world.

The world is not ready

As I write this article, I’m sitting in seat 10C on a Boeing 737-800 on my way back home from Los Angeles. On this plane are approximately 160 individuals who just passed through one of the busiest international airports in the country, LAX, at some point in time today. Some likely made connecting flights from other parts of the world on their way back to or through our flight’s destination of Portland, Oregon.

In the row behind me a woman has been coughing for the past five minutes. Those aerosolized droplets will intermingle with the cabin air and circulate through the aircraft, potentially infecting those with compromised immune systems or who are otherwise worn down and more susceptible to infection down the road.

Personally, I feel fine. However, as I went through Los Angeles today, I came into contact with dozens of people—any of whom could potentially be vectors for contagious disease. Each person on this plane has a similar story: Throughout their travels, wherever they may have been and are going, they also came into con-tact with dozens of people, who had been in contact with dozens of other people, and at every interaction there is the potential to spread disease. They may not exhibit symptoms now, but they could carry the illness home, coming down sick in a few days and spreading it to family members or coworkers.

This same scenario is duplicated hundreds of thousands of times each day around the world. According to the website FlightRadar24, the day of this flight, July 10, saw a record number of flights tracked around the world—204,147 total. When we consider the sheer number of personal interactions the individuals on those planes experienced, it’s not hard to imagine how quickly something could quickly spread to become a worldwide pandemic.

Ebola—a case study in how quickly diseases could spread

In 1918, when the Spanish Influenza outbreak spread around the world killing tens of millions of people, instantaneous air travel wasn’t a factor. A person could not be in Seattle one minute and 12 hours later land in Amsterdam, or vice versa. In 1918 travel by ship was the primary means of international travel—which took time. Today, with modern transportation, a person can be exposed to a disease in one location and ultimately transport it to anywhere in the world by hopping on a flight.

For example, between 2013 and 2016, the Ebola virus spread throughout Western Africa, infecting more than 28,000 people and killing more than 11,000. The epicenter was the city of Gueckedou, a border town in Guinea that’s a major trading center along a regional crossroads leading into Sierra Leone and Liberia.

On Dec. 6, 2013, a 2-year-old boy contracted the disease and died, but not before he infected his grandmother and 3-year-old sister. Two mourners who attended his grandmother’s funeral contracted the disease and carried it home to their villages where it began to slowly spread. A health worker who helped treat the grandmother and sister carried it to another village where more and more people began to be infected.

Before long, Guinea, Sierra Leone and a number of other West African countries were experiencing large-scale Ebola outbreaks. Typically Ebola outbreaks in Africa are smaller and isolated and able to be brought under control in a matter of months. This time, however, the virus continued to spread, and instead of remaining localized it was spread for the first time by air travel.

In early July of 2014, Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American, contracted Ebola after his sister died from the disease in Liberia. He boarded a flight to Nigeria, and became ill and began to exhibit symptoms on the flight. Upon landing at Muhammed Murtala Airport in Lagos, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he later died.

While he was in the hospital, the disease spread to a nurse and doctor who treated him there, both of whom died, as well as to others he came into contact with. Over a three-month period, 20 people had become infected, including Mr. Sawyer, and eight had died.

Another individual, Eric Thomas Duncan, a Liberian national, boarded a flight from Monrovia, Liberia, to Dallas, Texas. While he didn’t exhibit symptoms on the plane, he became ill once he had landed and was admitted to a hospital a few days later. He infected two of the nurses who treated him before he too died from the disease. Similar situations occurred in England, Italy and Spain with passengers who traveled to those countries by air during the 2013-2016 outbreak.

In an attempt to prevent continued transmission, many West African countries restricted travel to and from Ebola-infected areas. This slowed down the spread. Eventually the measures worked, the disease burned itself out and no new cases were discovered. West Africa’s outbreak was declared over on June 9, 2016.

As frightening as the Ebola outbreak of 2013-2016 was, particularly for West African countries, most epidemiologists agree that Ebola isn’t likely to become a pandemic. It isn’t virulent enough, and if proper quarantine and protective precautions are taken, the disease is relatively manageable.

Nightmare scenario—another flu pandemic

A disease that keeps epidemiologists awake at night is H7N9 Influenza. H7N9 is a variant of avian flu that has broken out in Asia several times over the past several years. Influenza viruses are notorious for their ability to mutate within hosts, and through the waves of outbreaks, the virus has mutated to the point that it can be transmitted from birds to people, and then to other people. 

In a recent outbreak, of those who contracted H7N9 Influenza 88 percent got pneumonia, 75 percent ended up in intensive care, and 40 percent died. In a fifth wave of outbreaks in China in 2017, the virus demonstrated resistance to antiviral drugs typically used to treat influenza, and a worrisome mutation has allowed it to now spread easily by air.

A 2017 study that examined this strain, published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, illustrated the potentially devastating effects if H7N9 were to continue on its present course. The study found that this particular strain had mutated into a highly pathogenic form of the virus that spread easily by air and was highly lethal.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, stated: “The study is another very stark reminder that we could be sitting on top of a global time bomb with H7N9. There are large gaps in pandemic preparedness, and if H7N9 triggers a pandemic, the vaccine would play a limited role” (emphasis added throughout).

Imagine a scenario where a large-scale outbreak of highly infectious, drug- and vaccine-resistant H7N9 influenza breaks out in China. Beijing has the second-busiest airport in the world. More than 94 million people traveled through it in 2016, an average of 258,000 per day. Exposed and carrying the virus, those infected land in one of the 260 different cities that have nonstop flights out of Beijing. How many dozens of other people would each of these passengers come into contact with upon landing? The results could be catastrophic.

A study carried out by Johns Hopkins University earlier this year simulated a new pathogen—one no more dangerous than other known pathogens—that could be spread by coughing. The study concluded that governments are woefully underprepared for such an outbreak that could kill up to 900 million people, more than a tenth of the world’s population.

Prophetic implications: Deadly epidemics to come

For years people have wondered what the end times before Jesus Christ returns will be like. In Matthew 24:3 Matthew 24:3And as he sat on the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?
American King James Version×
, Jesus’ disciples asked Him directly: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and the end of the age?”

Then, throughout Matthew 24, He described the conditions that will usher in the end of the age and His coming. He described religious deception, wars and rumors of wars, famines, pestilence and earthquakes. He went on to state in Matthew 24:8 Matthew 24:8All these are the beginning of sorrows.
American King James Version×
that these are the beginning of sorrows or of “birth pains” (New International Version). He goes on to describe persecutions, false prophets, lawlessness and the love of many growing cold.

As we look at the world around us, there have been wars and rumors of wars. We have experienced famines, earthquakes and, of course, pestilences in the past.

Did Jesus Christ return after World War I and the influenza outbreak of 1918? No—w hich tells us that what is ultimately being described in Matthew 24 is still yet to occur. There will be wars and rumors of wars between now and the return of Jesus Christ. There will be religious deception, ongoing famines, earthquakes and pestilence.

The four horsemen of Revelation

We should understand World War I and the 1918 influenza outbreak in terms of birth pangs, as we just noted in Matthew 24:8 Matthew 24:8All these are the beginning of sorrows.
American King James Version×
. As human labor begins, the contractions start, and they increase in frequency and intensity until the point of birth. Likewise, these events in the early 1900s, and even before that, were the beginnings of the contractions, and they will increase in frequency and intensity as we get closer to the return of Jesus Christ.

In the prophetic book of Revelation, the apostle John recorded visions from God given through Jesus Christ in which the conditions of the end times were revealed. Through a series of scrolls and seals, John was provided witness to the events of the end time, with some elements literal and some symbolic.

In the first part of Revelation 6, Christ reveals four horsemen loosed on the earth that bring the events described in Matthew 24:7-8 Matthew 24:7-8 7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. 8 All these are the beginning of sorrows.
American King James Version×
to fruition. As they ride, each provides a different aspect of Matthew 24—religious deception, war, famine and plague, including disease epidemics and natural disasters, accompanied by death.

Revelation 6:1-2 Revelation 6:1-2 1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. 2 And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given to him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
American King James Version×
: “Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, ‘Come and see.’ And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” This is the religious deception Jesus spoke of—a conquering false Christianity, a distortion of the image of Christ returning on a white horse later in the book. 

Revelation 6:3-4 Revelation 6:3-4 3 And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. 4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given to him a great sword.
American King James Version×
: “When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.” This is clearly war. 

Revelation 6:5-6 Revelation 6:5-6 5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and see a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. 6 And I heard a voice in the middle of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see you hurt not the oil and the wine.
American King James Version×
: “When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.’” This illustrates a time of scarcity and extremely high food costs—and thus famine for many. 

Revelation 6:7-8 Revelation 6:7-8 7 And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. 8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given to them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
American King James Version×
: “When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades [the grave] followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.” 

The pale horse presents the sickly color of those with disease. We further see killing by war, famine and deathly plague. The beasts here could include animals as carriers of disease, such as rats and mosquitoes, and perhaps even microscopic pathogens.

Frightening times ahead, but hope beyond that

As we see here, these four horsemen combined were given power over a fourth of the earth. If you take the current population of this planet, roughly 7.6 billion—one fourth equals nearly two billion people dying by warfare, famine, plagues of diseases and natural disasters and the beasts of the earth. By this point, the intensity and frequency of the birth pangs will have increased significantly in the events leading up to the return of Jesus Christ.

Prophetically, the Bible indicates a coming time of great difficulty to engulf our planet—a time like no one has ever seen before, nor will ever see again. It will be a time God will have to cut short or no flesh would be saved alive (Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22 21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×
). Included in that difficult time will be terrible pandemics that will cause great destruction across the globe—pandemics that together will far surpass the death tolls of the 1918 influenza outbreak.

Although our world today is vastly more technologically advanced, that ironically sets the stage through modern transportation and globalization for such pandemics to spread with astounding speed. All it will take is one “patient zero” somewhere in the world to begin the process, and when the dust settles billions could be dead.

Our modern technology has also enabled people to weaponize pathogens in biological warfare. Thus some of the terrible pandemics to come may be man-made.

We can take heart, however, in spite of the catastrophes to come, that the same God who has foretold these horrible conditions has also told us of the wonderful Kingdom age that will follow. It is in the promises of the coming Kingdom of God that we place our hope.

When the tribulation is over, Jesus Christ will return triumphantly, and the Kingdom of God will be ushered in to rule over all nations.

Even though all of the prophesied difficulties will get worse and worse—deception, wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes and other disasters—we have no need to worry. We can put our faith in the promises of our great God who is sending Christ to save us!