Century on from flu outbreak which killed millions

Date: Friday 12th October 2018
Medical men wore masks to avoid the flu at a United States Army hospital in November, 1918.
Medical men wore masks to avoid the flu at a United States Army hospital in November, 1918.

IT is 100 years since a deadly outbreak of Spanish influenza killed millions of people around the world and claimed the lives of people across Cumbria.

Just as the First World War was drawing to an end, the virus took hold.

Unlike earlier flu outbreaks, which tended to afflict those of poor health or weakened by age, the Spanish influenza predominantly hit the fit and well, its victims typically between the ages of 20 and 45. Strong immune systems overreacted to this particular virus.

One of those who lost his life to the killer disease was a soldier who had survived the horrors of the war, only to be struck down on his return.

Private Joe Robley, of Soulby, near Kirkby Stephen, was a member of the Lonsdale Battalion who fought at the Battle of the Somme on 1st July, 1916. He was discharged in December, 1916, after being wounded and losing a leg.

Joe, who was employed by the War Agricultural Committee, married Miss Alice Watson, of Laylands, Appleby, in November, 1916, but in a cruel twist of fate, they both died on 26th November, 1918, of Spanish flu, aged 25 and 26 respectively.

In Carlisle, 121 people died of influenza in 1918 out of a total of 921 deaths that year, while a further 38 died in 1919. In Kendal, influenza caused nine deaths in 1919 out of a total of 187 that year.

In the interest of keeping up morale, countries whose militaries fought in the war restricted the reporting of influenza deaths, but the press in neutral Spain were free to report the mortality rates. This gave the impression that flu deaths were greater in Spain, hence the nickname “Spanish flu”.

Doctors were puzzled as to how to treat people, as viruses were not well understood at the time, and the Spanish influenza claimed the lives of almost 250,000 British people, and between 50 million and 100 million people died worldwide between the spring of 1918 and winter of 1919.