The Spanish fever pandemic

The Spanish fever pandemic


In 1918, with incredible violence on a population exhausted by four years of war, arrived in Italy the terrible “Spanish flu”. The epidemic, that in Europe its first wave arrived in spring affecting first Spain (from where derives the name), then France, Scotland, Italy, Greece, the Central Powers, England and the Scandinavian countries; regains virulence, with a second wave, but this time it spreads in the entire continent.

From a clinical perspective the disease manifests itself with a violent fever, preceded or not by goosebumps, intense headache, diffuse pain in the eyes, in the joints and in the muscles; the disease develops with cough (often with hemorrhagic phlegm), cyanosis, tachycardia and toxic shock coma. The death toll is terrifying: just in Italy there are 274.041 direct deaths and about 500.000 from indirect causes. Italy, a mainly agricultural country, with poor knowledge regarding hygiene and prevention, employs aleatoric methods (personal hygiene, staying away from sick people, gauzes over the mouth,...) and therapies known at the time, like camphor, caffeine, phenacetin, quinine, prevalently ineffective. The government, headed by Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and the local authorities tried to prevent panic with measures close to hypocrisy, like banning funeral processions and tolling bells at sick’s deaths, imposition of silence to the press, blaming the German enemy or even the veterans who came back ragged and grimy from the never ending war. Also about the biological causes we haven’t clear ideas: at first was suspected the virus Hemophilus influeantie discovered by Pfeiffer (pupil of Koch), then it’s considered the cause of the epidemic the interaction of multiple factors of the virulence considering the match with a spread of swine flu (the so called virus “A”. The “A2” type is liable of the Asiatic epidemic in 1957).The identification of the virus will be for a long time a mystery, especially for its mutation ability, to the point that American scientists, through the electron microscope (we’re in 1951) examined the frozen bodies of Eskimos who died of Spanish flu without finding a single trace of the virus. Only recently, at the beginning of the XXI century, new investigations on the frozen bodies of a Canadian shipment of people in the polar regions, recently come to light thanks to the retreat of the glaciers, seem to make the mystery a little clearer. At the beginning of 1919, slowly, the epidemic (or better the pandemic) was over: within a year had affected half of humankind.

The pandemic involved also the cemeteries, as it was necessary to make separated burial areas for hygiene and security reasons. An example is the Certosa Cemetery of Bologna, inside which there’s the “Hospital burial field” and the “Infected burial field”, reserved for those who died in the nursing homes or due to illness. Already on occasion of the many epidemic waves of Cholera in ‘800, was built a “Tower of the victims of cholera”, a circular ossuary placed outside the burial area, where nowadays there’s the monumental entry towards Andrea Costa street. The bones of the deceased were placed in the upper part exposed to the wind, in order to sanitize them. The victims of cholera were firstly buried in deeper masses situated in separated fields, at the end of the time of the burial, the bones were collected and brought to the ossuary.

Traduzione di Matilde Zanotti, classe 5A, in collaborazione con il Liceo Linguistico Internazionale C. Boldrini di Bologna, marzo 2022.

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Navi ospedale (Le)
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Adolfo Cotronei, Le navi ospedale della nostra Marina. Estratto dal periodico 'La Lettura - rivista mensile del Corriere della Sera', Milano, 1912. © Museo Risorgimento Bologna | Certosa.