Spanish Flu: A warning from history

One hundred years ago, celebrations marking the end of the First World War were cut short by the onslaught of a devastating disease: the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

The early origins and initial geographical starting point of the pandemic still remain a mystery but in the summer of 1918, there was a second wave of a far more virulent form of the influenza virus than anyone could have anticipated.

Soon dubbed ’Spanish Flu’ after its effects were reported in the country’s newspapers, the virus rapidly spread across much of the globe to become one of the worst natural disasters in human history.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers were left helpless as their patients, the majority previously healthy young adults, languished and died from respiratory failure. There is now a broad consensus among experts that in just three years, Spanish Flu killed between fifty and one hundred million people. Despite this, public awareness of the disaster and the ongoing threat posed by influenza remains limited.

To mark the centenary and to highlight vital scientific research, the University of Cambridge has made a new film exploring what we have learnt about Spanish Flu, the urgent threat posed by influenza today, and how scientists are preparing for future pandemics. The film presents original photographs from the 1918 outbreak and exclusive interviews with four leading experts:

  • Dr Mary Dobson, a historian of infectious diseases
  • Professor Derek Smith,Director of Cambridge’s Centre for Pathogen Evolution
  • Dr AJ te Velthuis, a virologist studying how RNA viruses amplify,mutate and cause disease
  • Professor Julia Gog, a mathematician of infectious diseases including influenza