The word “influenza” comes from the Italian influentia because people used to believe that the influence of the planets, stars, and moon caused the flu – for only such universal influence could explain such sudden and widespread sickness.
The English adopted the word “influenza” in the mid-eighteenth century, while the French called it la grippe from gripper, meaning “to grasp or hook.” There is also a similar-sounding phrase in Arabic, anf-al-anza, which means “nose of the goat,” used because goats were thought to be carriers of the disease.
Annual flu viruses (not including flu pandemics) infect up to 20% of Americans, put 200,000 in the hospital with flu-related complications, and kill about 36,000 people.
The cost of treating annual flu epidemics, including lost wages and productivity of workers, is billions of dollars each year in just the United States alone.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates
that between three and five million people worldwide get a serious case of the regular flu each year; tens of millions get milder cases. Between 250,000 and 500,000 people globally die of the flu every year.
There have been four major global flu pandemics since 1900. The most recent pandemic is the current swine flu (officially named “Novel H1N1 Influenza A”). The last global pandemic was the Hong Kong flu (1968-1969) which killed approximately one million people. The Asian flu pandemic (1957-1958) originated in China and is estimated to have killed between one and four million people. The Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1919) killed between 50-100 million people worldwide.
Scientists believe that flu pandemics occur two or three times each century. f
The Spanish flu was the single deadliest plaque of the twentieth century
The single deadliest flu pandemic in history was the Spanish flu pandemic during 1918-1919. Occurring in the three waves of increasing lethality, the Spanish flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS did in 24 years. It also killed more people in one year than smallpox or the Black Plague did in 50 years.
The Spanish flu killed more Americans in one year than the combined total who died in battle during WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, any student caught without a mask during the Spanish flu was automatically suspended, and a town in Arizona passed a law forbidding people to shake hands.
The Spanish flu was sometimes called “the purple death” because the worst symptom, signally certain death, was known as “heliotrope cyanosis,” when the lungs were starved of oxygen and the patient would turn purple, black, or blue.
“Cures” for the Spanish flu included drinking whiskey, smoking cigars, eating milk toast, gargling with salt water, getting fresh air, and partaking of interesting concoctions like “Grippura.” Some doctors doused their patients with icy water while others “bled” their patients. Yet other doctors tried surgery by slicing open a patient’s chest, spreading his ribs, and extracting pus and blood from the pleural cavity (the cavity surrounding the lungs), which was almost always fatal in flu victims.
Native Americans died at a rate four times the national average from the Spanish flu.
Novel Influenza A H1N1 (swine flu) first caused widespread illness in Mexico and the United States in March and April 2009, though Mexico may have been in the midst of the epidemic some months before. The first case in the United States was confirmed by the CDC on April 15, 2009.