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The influenza epidemic of 1918/19

Around a century ago, in the spring of 1918, a deadly influenza epidemic began to spread across Europe, eventually plaguing even the Asian and African continents in several waves. The pandemic would claim the lives of 20-50 million people, most of whom were between 20 and 40 years of age. The disease, which was given the name 'the Spanish flu', would finally abate in 1919.

01.02.2019 | Mathias Kobel

Hospital ward, World War I, military postcard collection of the Library Am Guisanplatz, No. 1996
Hospital ward, World War I, military postcard collection of the Library Am Guisanplatz, No. 1996

The Spanish flu was an acute viral disease that affected humans and was transmitted by droplet infection. It was first reported in Spain, which is what gave this deadly disease its name. Infected patients were at risk of dying from virus-induced or bacterial pneumonia.

First, second and third waves

The origin of this flu is unclear. In the spring of 1918, a new type of influenza virus popped up in Kansas, USA. Soldiers training at Camp Funston first fell ill with the highly contagious infectious disease in May. The epidemic then spread rapidly and was brought to Europe by the over 1.5 million American soldiers deployed.

The second wave happened later that year in autumn. This wave varied between different countries in duration and intensity. Starting in the North Atlantic, it spread all over the world. In the spring of 1919, the final wave hit – this time, however, with a lower virulence and fewer deaths.

The Spanish flu in Switzerland

Switzerland was not spared from the epidemic. At the outbreak of the disease in the summer of 1918, doctors were not yet required to report flu-related illnesses. However, on 11 October that same year, the Federal Council classified the flu as a dangerous disease, and reporting was made mandatory. We can assume that the flu first hit Switzerland in June or July of 1918, affecting soldiers working as guards at the railway station in Basel. The Swiss health authorities reported around 750,000 infected from 1918-19. In total, 24,500 people died of the Spanish flu, 1,800 of whom were soldiers.

At the Library Am Guisanplatz, you can find various wartime documents dealing with this epidemic, along with current literature on this subject.


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