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Episode 1 - Origins, symptoms and spread

Episode 1 of 3

Leading virologist Professor John Oxford charts the story of the 1918-19 flu pandemic which killed more than 220,000 people in the UK and over 50 million people worldwide.

As the coronavirus affects the whole world, leading virologist Professor John Oxford presents a three part series on the origin, spread and reaction to the Pandemic that devastated much of the planet just over 100 years ago.

The so-called Spanish flu of 1918/19 is estimated to have killed more than 50 million of the 500 million people it infected, including 228,000 in the UK. It was the planet's biggest single natural human catastrophe - a flu pandemic that killed more people than both world wars put together in a fraction of the time. And yet this huge moment in history remains largely under the radar.

Despite massive advances in health care and medical science, the parallels to today are stark. Professor John Oxford has warned of a similar kind of pandemic for years and has continually argued such a threat should be at the very heart of disaster planning for all governments.

In three programmes, he charts the story of how the 1918/19 flu pandemic affected the UK and the world.

In Episode 1, he looks at the much debated origins of the H1N1 strain of flu. There are three theories - firstly it incubated in an army camp in the United States, secondly it originated from China, and thirdly (John's theory) that it probably began a couple of years earlier inside a military camp near the Western front in France. The real truth about the origin remains a conundrum to frustrated scientists.

John also looks at the symptoms, some of them remarkably similar to the ones we see today with coronavirus. Both diseases affect the respiratory system and lead to coughs and fevers but there are specifics which make them both unique. The H1N1 strain of the flu would turn people a strange purple colour, give them severe headaches and, in many cases, delirium. In 1918, a secondary disease like bacterial pneumonia could not be treated with antibiotics.

This particular strain of the flu tended to affect younger, fitter people. Around half of all those who died were in their 20s to 40s. Pregnant women died and so did their children. It's thought many elderly people had built up immunity from previous serious outbreaks of flu in the 1800s.

Through powerful testimony we hear how the spread of the disease was stark and affected the whole world in extremely quick time. Ships and trains became the incubators and it's believed the flu was first brought into Britain by soldiers returning to Scotland. It wasn't unusual for a soldier who had survived four years of bloody conflict to return from the front on a Monday and be dead by Thursday. Whole families were wiped out by the Spanish flu.

In every part of the world, the fear of death was palpable. Professor Howard Phillips, Professor of History (Capetown University, South Africa), tells the programme, 'It all happened at dramatic speed. One man wrote, "I wonder if humanity will survive". In that situation, hearing a sneeze would have been spine-chilling.'

And in a frightening reminder of how pandemics evolve, John explains how the killer flu came in three waves - firstly in the spring of 1918, then in the autumn of the same year and again in early 1919. Armistice celebrations at the end of the First World War helped to make the second wave even more deadly than the first.

Episode 2 will looks at how the authorities in the UK and around the world reacted to the flu in different ways and how misinformation played its part. Episode 3 examines the long term impact on people, communities and on general health.

Produced by Ashley Byrne and Iain Mackness
A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4

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28 minutes

Last on

Fri 15 May 2020 11:00

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