The Great War’s greatest killer

Laura Spinney on the Spanish flu, a pandemic that cut short more than 50 million lives

The World Today Published 3 August 2018 Updated 10 November 2020 3 minute READ

Laura Spinney

Author of ‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World’ (Vintage)

A hundred years ago, at the tail end of the First World War, a deadly new strain of influenza emerged that would infect one in three people. The ensuing pandemic cut short the lives of between 50 million and 100 million human beings. It was the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death of the 14th century, and possibly in the whole of human history.

The 1918 flu pandemic has been studied ever since it receded in the 1920s, leaving untold misery in its wake, and though scientists know a lot more about it than they did 100 years ago, many questions remain unanswered. Why was it so lethal? Why did it attack those in the prime of life – robbing families of their breadwinners and communities of their pillars? And could such a thing happen again?

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