Parallels are frequently drawn in the media with the Spanish flu outbreak in 2018 and the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The main similarity is how the virus swept around the world in part due to enhanced modes of travel – but there the similarity ends.
Rather than Spain being the origin of the outbreak or the H1N1 influenza A virus it is now believed to have begun in Kansas in the USA earlier than 1918 and was likely transferred to humans from pigs although this is still in doubt.
Censorship caused by World War One allowed it to ‘go under the radar’ for a long time as USA troops transferred it to France and from there around the globe by land, sea and air. It continued until 1920 killing up to 60 million people and infecting countless more.
Unlike Covid-19 Spanish flu affected all ages and all levels of society from the King of Spain to the lowliest soldier in the trenches.
The Bath Medical Museum has plenty of information on the pandemics of yesteryear with an article by their sage Dr. Roger Rolls.
He writes: “In 1806, the Bath Chronicle reported that ‘a kind of influenza that spares no one at present prevails in Spain. Fortunately, it is seldom fatal. The whole of the Royal Family have been attacked by it. At Barcelona where this malady commenced, 28,300 persons were ill of it at once.’ This is not the Spanish Flu we talk of now but an epidemic which occurred over a hundred years earlier.”
First World War
He writes that pandemics of acute respiratory infections have occurred regularly over the past few centuries.
The good doctor said: “The best known and most devastating occurred at the end of the First World War leading to an estimated mortality of sixty million people worldwide.
“In 1917 no one had ever seen a virus as they were too small to be viewed with an optical microscope. Few people then had any idea of what was causing it.”
Back to Bath and the current outbreak of the virus. The numbers of people dying are not in the millions or even the thousands in the city but they are still at worryingly high levels.
This time the virus is affecting the elderly and those with health conditions disproportionately. In contrast the museum charts how in one month in1918, there were121 deaths from influenza and 26 from pneumonia. Almost half of the deaths were in those aged 15 to 35.
For more on the museum and its recording of illness visit https://bathmedicalmuseum.org/
In an article for the Bath Medical Museum Dr Roger Rolls writes at length about a disease that affected not only Bath but the world.
He explained that the Bubonic plague of the 16th and 17th centuries was caused by black rats who transmitted the disease by fleas.
Since Bathonians were not the most hygienic people (as indeed was true of all citizens of Britain) the transfer of the infection to humans from fleas via rats was literally just a hop away.
The ghastly disease known as Yersinia Pestis, was characterised by swollen lymph glands in the groin and armpits, fever, prostration, and skin haemorrhages.
Dr. Roger Rolls said: “There is a popular misconception both now and in the 17th century that plague swept the country like wildfire. If there was a countrywide epidemic, we should also expect to see increased mortality in 1563, 1578, 1593 all of which were years of plague in London.
“There were no Bath epidemics in these years. However, there was possibly some correlation with London plague years in 1582, 1603 and 1625, the Bath outbreaks being a year later except for 1625.
“The Bath council was aware of the danger of allowing visitors into the city who had come from places where plague was active.
“For instance, the Chamberlain’s account for 1583 records paying two sentries to turn away visitors from Paulton where there was a plague outbreak.”
The Bubonic plague was to return time and time again with the authorities seemingly mystified of how it occurred. In the 17th century an outbreak in London was charted in all its horror by Samuel Pepys in his diaries.
Dr. Roger Rolls said: “The Bath authorities appear to have feared the spread of plague from London in 1665 because no person was allowed into the city from the capital without special permission of the mayor and justices, and nobody at all was allowed in between 10pm and 5am.
“Sentries were posted on the routes into town to police these regulations. Any Bath citizens who received guests coming from London was fined £10.
“This strategy may have been successful because there was no evidence of increased mortality in that year.”
A strategy still in place today.
Bath Voice is a monthly news magazine for the city. Harry Mottram is the news editor.
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For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk