How Many Americans Died From Spanish Flu and How Did the Pandemic End?

Deaths related to COVID-19 in the U.S. have reached 676,000, surpassing the number that died during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

Until now, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had considered the influenza epidemic of 1918 to be the worst pandemic in modern history. The virus behind the pandemic was an H1N1 strain of flu originating in birds.

Some 500 million people, around a quarter of the world's population at the time, contracted the virus. It was named after the country where it first came to prominence. Spain was hard hit by the virus and, as a result of it having no media blackout during wartime, the disease became associated with the country. Globally, the influenza killed some 10 percent of those who contracted it.

In the U.S. alone the 1918 influenza epidemic killed an estimated 675,000, around one in five people who contracted the virus.

However, unlike COVID-19, there was no effective vaccine for the Spanish Flu.

Efforts were made to create a vaccine for the 1918 flu. However, as researchers wouldn't discover the viral nature of influenza until the 1930s, it was still considered bacterial.

With no real medical intervention against the Spanish Flu, the first recorded case of which was at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918, the only protection against the virus was all too familiar measures such as isolation, the limiting of gatherings, improved personal hygiene and quarantines.

Each wave of the Spanish Flu seemed to be deadlier. By the third wave, contemporary reports stated the virus could kill a healthy person within a day.

This resulted in a situation in which anyone having contracted Spanish Flu either died or became immune, slowing the spread of the virus. By the summer of 1919, the third wave was over and the pandemic ended.

The global spread of the 1918 flu is often referred to as "the forgotten pandemic" because it was overshadowed by the First World War and media blackouts in many countries at the time. This is despite the fact it claimed over twice as many lives, with an estimated 20 million killed in the conflict.

Yet, Spanish Flu, or 1918 H1N1 as it is officially known, isn't "dead." However, because of the supply of antivirals and the flu vaccine, the Spanish Flu is unlikely to be the cause of another pandemic.

Just as it was once overshadowed by WWI, the 1918 pandemic has now been eclipsed by COVID-19. According to The New York Times COVID map, the number of deaths in the U.S. during this current pandemic has topped the number reached by the Spanish Flu.

Spanish Flu
The barracks hospital on the campus of Colorado Agricultural College, Fort Collins, Colorado, 1918, treats victims of the Spanish Flu. The death toll of COVID in the U.S. has now exceeded that of the 1918 flu pandemic. PhotoQuest/Getty