laughing
In the SBM comments section, someone recently posted this gem:

That “Spanish flu” pandemic was actually caused by a typhus vaccine. They called it Spanish flu so the vaccine didn’t get blamed.

Other commenters quickly pointed out that time travel is not possible. The Spanish flu pandemic started in 1918 and the typhus vaccine wasn’t developed until 1933.

After I stopped laughing, I began to wonder where that bizarre idea had come from.

I quickly determined that the commenter had confused typhus with typhoid, but typhoid didn’t make sense either. As I kept looking, I came across a number of myths surrounding the Spanish flu, some of them very amusing. But first, let’s review the facts.

The facts about the 1918 flu pandemic

Note: an epidemic is when a disease spreads rapidly through a community or a geographic area; a pandemic is a global outbreak where the disease spreads around the entire world.

First some background. The Spanish flu began during WWI and lasted from 1918 to 1919. It was the deadliest pandemic in modern history. It first affected people in Europe, the US, and parts of Asia and quickly spread worldwide, reaching even to remote Alaskan villages and to the most remote islands of the Pacific. 500 million people were infected (one-third of the world’s population), and 20-50 million died. Whole families were wiped out. A first wave of the disease occurred in the spring of 1918 and was relatively mild, but a more severe wave began later in the year. Troop movements and other war-related disruptions played a role in its rapid transmission. The more virulent disease appeared almost simultaneously in Sierra Leone, France, and Boston. It hit hardest in young, healthy adults, invading the lungs and causing suffocation. Sometimes it killed within a matter of hours. Doctors didn’t know what caused it, and there was no treatment other than supportive care. The pandemic fizzled out in the summer of 1919, as the infected either died or developed immunity.

It wasn’t until 1928 that the cause of influenza was determined to be a virus. Eventually it was pinned down to an H1N1 virus, the so-called “swine flu” virus that also affects pigs. The 1918 strain was the most virulent in recorded history. Scientists have studied tissue samples from 1918 victims, including the frozen corpse of an Inuit woman buried in Alaskan permafrost, and have managed to sequence its entire genome. Their findings suggested it may have originated in birds and a mutation may have allowed it to spread to humans.

There was a second swine flu pandemic in 2009 caused by a new H1N1 strain that originated in pigs in Mexico. As with the 1918 strain, it disproportionally affected healthy young adults. A vaccine was available, and millions of doses were administered; but a study published in The Lancet estimated that the swine flu may have killed as many as 575,400 people that year.

Not Spanish

The very name Spanish flu is based on a myth. The first cases may have come from France, Belgium, Kansas, or China; experts disagree. But they all agree it did NOT originate in Spain. Spain got the blame because it was a neutral country in WWI and had no wartime press censorship. The countries involved in the war censored news about flu cases in their own countries. When Spain reported its cases, that news was reprinted and everyone got the idea that that’s where the epidemic started.

Myths on the Exopolitics website

Along with promoting flu vaccine myths, this website has some very questionable claims about Ebola, calling it “a man-made bioweapons owned and patented by the US government and the CDC.” It claims vitamin C is the ideal treatment for Ebola, calls Ebola “a gift from Jesuit murderers,” and claims that Bush’s “pandemic laws” and Obama threaten the American public with martial law and genocide by vaccine.

It also claims the World Health Organization (WHO) has admitted that its smallpox vaccine caused AIDS.

Some of its claims about influenza (errors in the original):

  • “There was no Spanish flu”

There was no 1918 Spanish flu – 50-100 million people were exterminated by vaccines and aspirin. Mandated vaccines at the end of the war, forced on soldiers triggered lots of horrible symptoms of all kinds and lots of deaths and it was all blamed on a mysterious flu… Vaccines set off symptoms and death, everyone was told there was a flu pandemic, doctors and people used aspirin…aspirin is immune suppressant and led to pneumonias and death or to overdosing with aspirin and death.

  • Patients died of pneumonia, not influenza. Well, yes; the flu virus damaged the lungs and allowed for bacterial superinfections. But the flu was clearly responsible.
  • Blame it on aspirin. It says the Journal of the American Medical Association recommended “toxic” doses of aspirin: 1,000 mg every three hours, or 8,000 mg/day. That is not a toxic dose. Mild toxicity begins at a dose of 150mg/kg and serious toxicity begins at dose of 300 mg/kg. A toxic dose for an adult male would be more like 24,000 mg/day. A study by Karen Starko suggested that overdoses of aspirin might have contributed to a small number of deaths, but she acknowledged that she did not have autopsy reports or other documents to support her conjecture.
  • Homeopathy saves lives. Homeopaths allegedly saved the lives of almost every patient who came to them, supposedly because they didn’t use aspirin. Homeopaths did report astounding success rates, but their results were self-reported and anecdotal: no controlled studies were done to evaluate their claims. If a patient died who had gone against the homeopath’s advice in any way (for instance taking aspirin) they might not have felt obligated to count that case as a failure of homeopathy.
  • There was a conspiracy. Bayer and other manufacturers were involved in a conspiracy to criminalize homeopathy and natural cures in order to sell more aspirin.
  • Godwin’s law strikes again. According to Godwin’s law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” Sure enough:

    Twenty years after Bayer contributed to the largest number of deaths by disease (20 to 50 million) in human history, Bayer was a primary funder of Hitler, helped run the basic operations of the war, including the concentration camps, and in causing WWII and slaughtering and experimenting on people during the Holocaust, was responsible for the deaths of 50-70 million people. Was Bayer a financial backer of the German military during WWI as well?

    Really? Bayer caused WWII? I don’t think so! And anyway, whatever sins they may have committed in WWII, that doesn’t mean they were responsible for the 1918 flu epidemic.

  • Hallucinogenic nonsense? They quote Shiv Chopra, microbiologist, vaccine expert:

    “The bird and mammalian species took hold on the earth approximately 65 million years ago, i.e. the same time as the dinosaurs went extinct. So did the flu and other viruses of all the surviving species. Since then, all those viruses have been mating [viruses don’t mate!] and mutating among themselves without the sky caving in due to any infection. Therefore, any talk of a bird or swine flu pandemic with the probability to kill millions of people is either a purposeful or hallucinogenic nonsense to make profit on the backs of the innocent following.”

Myths on Whale.to

John Scudamore’s Whale.to may be the worst site on the web, full of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Orac has explained “the nuttiness that is Whale.to” and how it led to the formulation of Scopie’s law: “In any discussion involving science or medicine, citing Whale.to as a credible source loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.” Some of the myths Scudamore promotes:

  • In Whale.to’s “Swine Flu Expose” he says:

    ”Their scare-head campaign cry is that the swine flu is like the 1918 flu which killed 20,000,000 people. They don’t have any usable and provable blood samples from the 1918 flu epidemic to prove it. That was 58 years ago, and the doctors were just as confused and inefficient then as now. However, one thing is certain — the 1918 Spanish Influenza was a vaccine-induced disease caused by extreme body poisoning from the conglomeration of many different vaccines. The soldiers at Fort Dix who were said to have had Swine Flu had been injected with a large variety of vaccines like the vaccines which caused the 1918 flu epidemic. The flu epidemic at Fort Dix was in no way related to swine. There were no swine at camp (unless we want to sarcastically call the vaccine promoters who caused the diseases -“swine.”)”

  • “Vaccines are designed to cause a mild case of the diseases they are supposed to prevent.” [No, they are designed to train the immune system to recognize antigens and prevent the disease. They contain either a small, noninfectious portion of the organism or a weakened form of the whole organism. Vaccines can’t cause even a mild case of the original disease.]
  • “Smallpox vaccine often causes syphilis, paralysis, leprosy, and cancer.”
  • “I heard that seven men dropped dead in a doctor’s office after being vaccinated.”
  • “Many [soldiers] were insane from postvaccinal encephalitis, but the doctors called it shell shock.”
  • “The diphtheria vaccine caused lung congestion, chills and fever, swollen, sore throat clogged with the false membrane, and the choking suffocation because of difficulty in breathing followed by gasping and death, after which the body turned black from stagnant blood that had been deprived of oxygen in the suffocation stages. In early days they called it Black Death.” [The diphtheria vaccine doesn’t do that, and the Black Death was an entirely different disease.]
  • “When doctors had tried to suppress the symptoms of the typhoid with a stronger vaccine, it caused a worse form of typhoid which they namedparatyphoid. [Paratyphoid is not form of typhoid: it is a separate disease caused by a different organism.] But when they concocted a stronger and more dangerous vaccine to suppress that one, they created an even worse disease which they didn’t have a name for. What should they call it? They didn’t want to tell the people what it really was — their own Frankenstein monster which they had created with their vaccines and suppressive medicines. They wanted to direct the blame away from themselves, so they called it Spanish Influenza.”
  • He says “The flu hit only the vaccinated,” but later on the same page he contradicts himself, saying “There was seven times more disease among the vaccinated soldiers than among the unvaccinated civilians.”
  • He claims that drugless doctors at non-medical hospitals like Battle Creek were able to cure nearly 100% of their patients with water cure, baths, enemas, fasting, and diets of natural foods.
  • “One soldier who had returned from overseas in 1912 told me that the army hospitals were filled with cases of infantile paralysis and he wondered why grown men should have an infant disease. Now, we know that paralysis is a common after-effect of vaccine poisoning. Those at home didn’t get the paralysis until after the world-wide vaccination campaign in 1918.” [Simply not true. People were being paralyzed by polio as far back as ancient Egypt, long before vaccines.]

Myths on Natural News

Mike Adams, “The Health Ranger” runs the infamous website Natural News. He does his part to spread myths about the 1918 flu (errors in original):

  • It began in multiple cities, simultaneously!There is no single point of origin with the 1918 flu. It appears to have “spontaneously” sprung up across multiple cities all at once, including a military base in Kansas. (Kansas? Yep. So how did it get to Kansas in an era when air traffic was virtually non-existent? Vaccines, of course!) All those cities and servicemen have one thing in common: Flu shot vaccinations given to them by the military.”
  • “If you put the pieces together on this, it’s not too difficult to suspect that influenza could potentially be used as a tool of control by governments or drug companies to catalyze outrageous profit-taking or power grabbing agendas. A desperate, infected population will gladly give up anything or pay anything for the promise of being cured.”
  • “Allen Tyler, a medical doctor and naturopathic physician, reports that fibromyalgia was not seen before the1918 flu pandemic. In his research, he found that 90 percent of fibromyalgia patients tested positive for influenza A antibodies.”
  • “This [homeopathic] tablet is made from the combined strains ofinfluenza virus from the major flu epidemics since 1918. The combined strains are then homeopathically prepared and potentized. No ill effects have ever been reported from the “cold and flu” tablet, and the rate of protection has been high.”

Myths on Mercola.com

Natural health proponent Joseph Mercola says that historical evidence points to too much aspirin as a contributor to high death tolls in the pandemic. And he suggests that Tamiflu, used to treat influenza, may be similarly causing deaths today. He also says many of the deaths blamed on flu were due to strep infections.

Myths on the Vaccine Liberation website

This website makes many questionable claims based on a single story in an Irish newspaper:

  • The Germans might have been responsible for the bug as part of their war effort, spreading it in theaters or where large numbers of people assembled.
  • All non-combat deaths of American soldiers may have been from the flu.
  • After vaccination became compulsory in the US Army in 1911, typhoid and all other vaccinal diseases increased at an alarming rate.
  • In 1917, 19,608 soldiers were hospitalized due to anti-typhoid inoculation and vaccinia.
  • “When Army doctors tried to suppress the symptoms of typhoid with a stronger vaccine, it caused a worse form of typhoid paratyphoid. But when they concocted an even stronger vaccine to suppress that one, they created an even worse disease Spanish flu.”
  • Patients didn’t die of the flu: doctors killed them with their crude and deadly treatments.

Osteopathic myths

DOs used osteopathic manipulation along with other measures to treat victims of the pandemic. A report in the Journal of Osteopathy in 1919 explained:

To treat the Flu osteopathically is to inhibit mechanically, by relaxing the muscles along the spine, gently but persistently, with deep pressure over its entire length, preferably with the palms of the hands, with special inhibition in the suboccipital fossa, the area of the fourth, eighth, tenth … and eleventh dorsal inclusive. When there is edema of the lungs the muscles employed in respiration should receive special attention.

DOs criticized medical doctors for using aspirin, saying it suppressed the fever but lowered blood pressure, “counteracting nature’s efforts to correct the secretory disturbance and leaving the patient to drown in his own secretions.”

DOs reported a death rate of only one-fourth of one percent, 40 times less than allopaths, but those statistics were from self-reports and are not credible. Nevertheless, they claimed:

The greatly higher success rate of flu treatment by osteopathic physicians (D.O.s) over allopathic physicians (M.D.s) suggests having osteopathic manipulative treatment as a line of defense in preparing for another flu pandemic.

Chiropractic myths

Chiropractors also reported an impressive success rate.

A YouTube video by Dan Murphy, DC, points out that chiropractic was new, barely 20 years old in 1918. He claims that back then, patients mainly consulted chiropractors for infectious diseases rather than for back pain. He claims that patients’ immune systems work better when their spines are adjusted. He says that up until the 1950s chiropractors were mainly treating patients with polio. He claims that the success rate in the 1918 pandemic was so great it directly led to the licensing of chiropractors.

Conclusion: Influenza myths are false but fun

One of our commenters defended these mythmongering sources by saying “Whale /to and Vaccine Liberation are very well received on Facebook. Thank you.” Wow! Just wow! There ought to be another law like Scopie’s Law for people who think a favorable reception on Facebook has anything to do with truth or reality.

There’s no reason we can’t appreciate mythology for its own sake. After all, we enjoy a lot of things that are fictional: movies, TV shows, novels, science fiction. I had a lot of fun reading these myths. I laughed, I was entertained, and I marveled at the creative thinking and human ingenuity (and gullibility) that went into some of them. I was reminded of a quotation from Albert Einstein’s letter to a colleague: “Your chain of reasoning is so wonderfully self-contained. Except for agreeing with reality, it is certainly a grand intellectual achievement.”

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.