­­­Covid-19 v the Spanish­­ Flu

It’s been over 100 years since the last major global pandemic. So how do Covid-19 and the Spanish Flu compare?

­­­Covid-19  v  the Spanish­­ Flu
Volunteer nurses from the American red cross during flu epidemic (1918). Original image from Oakland Public Library.

The basics | Covid-19 and Spanish Flu are both respiratory viruses. Covid-19’s scientific name is SARS-CoV-2, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus 2. It belongs to the family of viruses known as ‘corona’ viruses, so named because of the crown or ‘corona’ of spikes on the outside shell of the virus.

The Spanish Flu’s scientific name is H1N1 Influenza A virus. H1N1 still exists today and is a type of virus known as orthomyxoviridae. Both diseases have similar symptoms, both can be fatal, and both have similar mortality rates.

The Spanish Flu didn’t emerge in Spain at all but from Kansas in the United States of America.
Image Description
Hospital train, unloading influenza patients in Allery France, 1918. Photo National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Covid-19 and Spanish Flu both had second and third waves, although in New Zealand the Spanish Flu epidemic was over in about three months.

The outbreak started in October 1918 and fizzled out in December 1918. An earlier influenza outbreak in 1918 had been widespread, but not nearly as lethal.

Image Description
Two metres apart. North Shore vaccination centre, Auckland, 2021. Photo Nick Eagles.

Virus origin | The Spanish Flu didn’t emerge in Spain at all but from Kansas in the United States of America. The influenza virus travelled with soldiers bound for the battlefields of Europe, and soon morphed into something more virulent in the latter months of 1918. Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019.

Mortality | the mortality rate of both diseases is similar at 2.4% for Covid-19 and 2.5% for the Spanish Flu.

With Spanish Flu, those most at risk were aged 25-40; for Covid-19 the most vulnerable are aged 65 years and over who have other serious health conditions known as comorbidities.

Cause of death | People who died from Spanish Flu, often died from a secondary bacterial infection of the lungs (pneumonia). There were no real treatments as antibiotics had yet to be discovered. With Covid-19, people die from an overactive immune system which causes organ failure. The virus can also cause inflammation in lung cells, severely reducing the lungs’ ability to oxygenate blood.