Under the Influence

How the Spanish Flu wasn't Spanish at all

Over 100 years later, it's still remembered as the Spanish Flu. But the pandemic didn't originate in Spain.
Men wear masks during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

A memorable brand can define a product for decades.

Repetition is a big factor in branding — for the more often a brand gets mentioned, the more indelible that brand name becomes. How a brand is first positioned in the marketplace is often the snapshot people file in their minds.

Unfortunately, the same principles apply when branding a disease.

Maybe the best example is the Spanish Flu of 1918.

It is remembered as the deadliest pandemic in recent history, infecting one-third of the world's population and killing more than 50 million people worldwide. But the Spanish Flu has a very interesting — and telling — history. World War I was underway. As the pandemic began to spread like wildfire throughout Europe and the U.S., wartime media censorship was enforced.

Public officials in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States all chose to either suppress the pandemic news or downplay the severity of the virus.

The reason: Governments didn't want to lower morale or cause panic during the costliest war in history. That decision would eventually kill more people than the war itself.

The one country that wasn't subject to media censorship was Spain. It had declared itself neutral in the First World War. As a result, public officials and the Spanish press in Madrid reported freely on the pandemic as it spread through their country. Spain's King Alonso XIII also fell gravely ill due to the virus and that only heightened the attention.

This extensive — and almost solitary — reporting of the disease in May of 1918 amidst a virtual media blackout in most other countries gave the world the false impression the disease had originated in Spain.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the 1918 pandemic, one thing was certain. It did not start in Spain.

Headlines proclaim the impact of the Spanish flu in Winnipeg on Oct. 26, 1918. (Manitoba Free Press)

One of the earliest recorded outbreaks of the pandemic came from the United States. Specifically, rural Kansas, of all places. Soldiers were crowded into a training facility there and — on day one — hundreds of recruits started checking into the infirmary complaining of severe flu symptoms that included high fevers, violent coughing and excruciating pain.

Many of these young men were healthy farm boys who were suddenly flattened by the virus. 500 were bedridden by the end of the week.

When boatloads of American soldiers were shipped out, they took the virus with them. The influenza tore across Europe. It was so serious, it impacted the war, with over 200,000 French and British soldiers becoming too ill to fight. The British Grand Fleet could not even be put out to sea as 10,300 men reported sick. Soon, the German forces were felled with the same virus.

That summer, the influenza seemed to finally subside. But that hope was dashed when the pandemic came roaring back in the fall, more lethal than ever.

The link between the war and the virus was undeniable and crushing. Troops took the virus with them on ships, on trains, into the barracks and into the trenches. Then it jumped to China, India, Japan and the rest of Asia.

When Spanish Flu health messages of 1918 finally emerged, they looked strikingly similar to COVID-19 messages of today.

Newspaper ads implored people to wash their hands multiple times a day. People were asked to quarantine and not gather in groups. Other ads had big headlines saying, "Wear a mask and save your life!" There was disdain for people who flouted the rules.

Brands also picked up on the Spanish Flu name and reinforced it with the public. One typical ad said the virus came by way of Spain and stated: "The best way to stay safe was to apply Vicks VapoRub at the first sign of a cold."

Medical professionals and officials in Spain protested. They said the Spanish people were being falsely stigmatized. Not only did the flu not originate in Spain, the outbreak there was brief and was much more serious in other countries. Nonetheless, the worldwide media overwhelmed the facts.

If you've ever wondered about the staying power of a brand, the "Spanish Flu" is a case in point.

A full 100 years later, the "Spanish Flu" is still referenced — and still remains a source of irritation in Spain.

For more stories about the Branding of Diseases, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)