The Spanish Influenza – It Started in Great Britain (We’re Almost Certain Not Quite)

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So we know the Spanish Influenza began in America. But not so fast. Highly respected scientific sources do not agree that the terrible pandemic started in the United States. Writing in the British medical journal Lancet (abstract available here) in 2002, medical researchers state:

We deduce that early focal outbreaks of influenza-like disease occurred in Europe and on the balance of probability the Great Pandemic was not initiated in Spain in 1918 but in another European country in the winter of 1916 or 1917. We suggest that the pandemic had its origins on the Western Front and that World War I was a contributor.

Writing in 2005, the same authors state in the medical journal Vaccine (abstract available here):

…the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 was a cataclysmic outbreak of infection wherein over 50 million people died worldwide within 18 months…early outbreaks of a new disease with rapid onset and spreadability, high mortality in young soldiers in the British base camp at Etaples in Northern France in the winter of 1917 is, at least to date, the most likely focus of origin of the pandemic. Pathologists working at Etaples and Aldershot barracks later agreed that these early outbreaks in army camps were the same disease as the infection wave of influenza in 1918. The Etaples camp had the necessary mixture of factors for emergence of pandemic influenza including overcrowding (with 100,000 soldiers daily changing), live pigs, and nearby live geese, duck, and chicken markets, horses and an additional factor 24 gases (some of them mutagenic) used in large 100 ton quantities to contaminate soldiers and the landscape. The final trigger for the ensuing pandemic was the return of millions of soldiers to their homelands around the entire world in the autumn of 1918.

US Army Camp Hospital No. 45, Aix-Les-Bains, France, Influenza Ward No. 1

[Image courtesy of Experience Project.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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