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100 Years Later: Vampires vs. The Spanish Flu

It’s officially the spookiest time of the year, so Happy Halloween everyone! This means there is no better time to serve you a pumpkin pie made of equal parts science, history and terrifying legend!

So wait up until midnight, light some candles, and make sure “Thriller” by Michael Jackson is playing somewhere in the background…

Thriller dance gif

It isn’t Halloween unless I hear or see this masterpiece at least once! (Source: Giphy)

Now, close your eyes, and picture London in 1918. Women over the age of 30 (provided they were also married to a local government elector) gained the right to vote, and the First World War was coming to an end.

However…There was something far deadlier than war lurking in the shadows…


Did I say vampires? Sorry, I meant the Spanish Flu!

Dracula sees a stake gif

Wondering how vampires and the Spanish Flu are related? Read on! (Source: Giphy)

You see I’ve recently been playing Vampyr, a fantastic game in which you play as Dr. Jonathon Reid; a top physician, man of science, and dedicated warrior against the Spanish Flu epidemic in London.

But upon his return to London, Reid is transformed into a bloodsucking creature of the night. He takes the night shift at the Pembroke Hospital to account for his absence during the daytime.

The game pits you against your own morality. Jonathon has an obligation to help people. On the other hand, he is now a vampire, and must consume the blood of others (killing them in the process) to sustain himself.

Title pic of Vampyr

I wonder who pitched this game, “Yeah so you have to fight vampires but also the Spanish Flu…”. Regardless, it really works as a game. (Source: DontNod)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the game is how authentic it feels. The game developers have done a great job in capturing what it was like to live through the Spanish Flu.

But before I get into that; why is it called the Spanish Flu?

I must admit, my guess was that it originated in Spain. But it turns out, when it comes to the Spanish Flu, not everything is as it seems…


What’s in a Name?

If your country is fighting in the First World War, the last thing you want is word getting out about how badly your people are suffering from the flu. So, what did these countries do?

They censored their media. Not exactly shocking, I know.

Well, since Spain was neutral during WWI, they were the first country to openly report on the devastation they were experiencing due to the flu. Hence, “The Spanish Flu”

In truth, there are several theories about where this strain of Influenza came from – and none of them involves Spain. The top three theories of origin are Kansas, U.S.A.; Étaples, France; or Northern China.

The Spanish Flu had other (quite poetic) descriptions at the time. It was sometimes known as “The Spanish Lady” or “La Grippe”, Doctors described it as “…like fighting with a ghost” and in Vampyr, a nurse describes it as “…an invisible enemy.

Ghostbusters spray gif

If it’s a ghost you’re fighting I know just who to call… (Source: Giphy)

Despite the newspapers reporting otherwise, many countries were hit hard by the Spanish Flu. So why was dealing with the flu more of a struggle than a world war?


Medical Practice vs Medical Research

Despite great strides made in medical research, there was quite a divide between the research and medical practice.

Take germ theory for example, which states that many diseases are caused by microorganisms.

Today we might think that’s just common sense. However, before Germ Theory, people simply believed that the air or water itself caused disease.

Miasma theory kept doctors in strange face masks stuffed with aromatics.

Before germ theory, the “Miasma Theory” suggested that disease came from bad odours in the air. Medieval doctors wore these scary-looking masks stuffed with aromatic items to keep themselves “safe.” (Source: Pinterest)

Despite the advancement of germ theory in medical research throughout the late 1800s, it still wasn’t widely accepted in medical practice.

Without a sound understanding of what they were dealing with, the Spanish Flu was simply impossible for the medical professionals of the time to defeat.

Some estimates suggest ~500 million people were infected with the Spanish Flu in 1918, so it’s no wonder that hospitals were over-crowded. Many hospitals, like the Pembroke Hospital depicted in Vampyr, had to erect tents in and around the hospital grounds just to accommodate the vast number of patients.

Many hospitals, like the Pembroke Hospital depicted in Vampyr, had to erect tents in and around the hospital grounds just to accommodate the vast number of patients.

Image of vampyr village scene

I’d be quite shocked if I was admitted to the local hospital only to be sat outside in a tent! (Source: DontNod)

Thanks to scientific advancement and modern medical methods, the number of people dying from influenza is no longer in the 50-100 million range. These days however, there are 650,000 flu-related deaths each year. Even in the absence of a pandemic, flu remains a serious problem.

Having said that, in 1918 the symptoms of the Spanish Flu were quite unlike the symptoms we’re familiar with today……


The Disease from your Nightmares

Flu symptoms in 2018 usually includefever, headache, chills etc. However, the 1918 Spanish Flu was different – it was a nightmare.

The average patient might be admitted to hospital with the symptoms described above. However, within a few hours, things could become dire. Lung function would decline, causing the patient to gasp for air as their skin literally turned blue.

The lungs would also haemorrhage blood, which would seep out of the eyes and ears as well as spurting out of the nose (up to a few feet). Needless to say, patients were in excruciating pain.

Lung function would decline, causing the patient to gasp for air as their skin literally turned blue.

The lungs would also haemorrhage blood, which would seep out of the eyes and ears as well as spurting out of the nose (up to a few feet). Needless to say, patients were in excruciating pain.

Honestly, these descriptions sound more like something from a horror film than reality. Perhaps that’s why the Spanish Flu was the perfect backdrop for a game like Vampyr.

In the game, when wandering the deserted streets of London, you’ll have some opportunities to rescue citizens from “Skals”.

A dark alleyway in vampyr

Skals are often encountered in dark alleyways and can be difficult to escape from (Source: DontNod)

Skals” are a sub-species of vampire that more closely resemble ghouls or zombies. Interestingly, if you choose to rescue citizens from these creatures, they’ll claim that these “Skals” are just normal people who have, “…gone mad from the epidemic”.

At first, I thought this was a little far-fetched, but there are some stories of individuals who underwent dramatic behavioural changes upon recovery from the Spanish Flu. The most intriguing example of this is U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson.

Some historians believe that Wilson became more argumentative, aggressive, and stubborn following his recovery from the flu. I wonder if this may have contributed to how severe the armistice treaty was towards Germany following WWI (something that certainly contributed to the animosity that would spark WWII).

vintage Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster

Accounts of mass hysteria and Woodrow Wilson’s extreme personality shift reminded me of another Halloween favourite of mine! (Source:

As I continued to play through Vampyr, I wondered how regular people – like my friends and family – would have coped with the situation. What must it have been like to live through this dreadful pandemic?


A Ghost Town with Grizzly Goings-on

Imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’re strolling down the main street of your home city. Now imagine you’re completely alone, you walk all day without passing another living soul.

This eerie loneliness was the feeling you might have had during the epidemic, and it’s expressed in the work of the artist Giorgio de Chirico, who lived through this terrible period. Much of his work shows ominous and desolate streets and plazas.

The Disquieting Muses painting by Giorgio de Chirico

The Disquieting Muses 1916 – 1918 (Source: Giorgio de Chirico)

These same feelings are recaptured in Vampyr. As Dr. Reid explores the deserted streets of London, the people he does meet are not entirely alive…or dead for that matter.

This overwhelming sense of fear and panic is best illustrated through Father Tobias Whittaker – a local priest in the Whitechapel area of Vampyr. Dig enough into his shady background and you’ll discover his sins. In his misguided attempt to prevent the spread of the flu, Father Whittaker has been burning potential flu victims alive.

Dig enough into his shady background and you’ll discover his sins. In his misguided attempt to prevent the spread of the flu, Father Whittaker has been burning potential flu victims alive.

Vampyr battle screenshot

I had a feeling Father Whittaker was up to no good… (Source: DontNod)

While this was certainly one of the darker storylines in the game, I remember scoffing at how unlikely it was that this would happen in real life.

Tragically, I was wrong.

On more than one occasion during the Spanish Flu, “family slayings” were carried out by the parents of sick children. Worse still, these were sometimes carried out before an official diagnosis. The more you read about the Spanish Flu, the more you begin to wonder how we would cope against a similar threat today.


100 Years Later…

2018 marks 100 years since the Spanish Flu pandemic and the question is – what have we learned?

Well, the good news is that science and medicine have come a long way since 1918.

Obviously, since we now accept Germ Theory, we all understand the importance of washing our hands. Also, virology and bacteriology have made great strides and as a result, we now have access to anti-virals and antibiotics. This means we are now capable of directly treating viral infections as well as the secondary bacterial infections.

In addition to now being able to isolate and accommodate large numbers of infected patients, we also have seasonal flu vaccines available.

infographic on how to avoid the flu

If you want to keep you, your friends and your family safe from the flu then follow these steps (Source: The Science Boi)

Each year, top virologists meet and decide which flu strains to target in the seasonal vaccine. Their decision is based on which strains are circulating around the world at that time.

So even after potentially scaring the wits out of you with the story of the Spanish Flu, I’m now telling you not to worry… well, maybe just worry less than if you were a time traveller from 1918. But if you’re still more frightened than when you first saw a paranormal activity film, then go get your flu shot.

Also, it never hurts to be familiar with the symptoms of the flu. Ultimately, when winter comes, don’t be afraid to visit your doctor…unless you suspect he’s a vampire!

Vampire rising Gif

If this is what you see when you walk through the door to your doctors office, perhaps you should run away…fast. (Source: Giphy)


If you want to read more blog posts about Influenza (e.g. Swine Flu or Bird Flu) let us know!

If you’re hungry for more on the Spanish Flu check out:

This Podcast Will Kill You – A terrific podcast about infectious diseases. Episode 1 is on the Spanish Flu and each episode gives you the recipe for a topical cocktail known as “Quarantineys”!

Extra History – A nice series of 6 youtube videos devoted to different aspects of the Spanish Flu

The Flu Vaccine Here you’ll find information provided by the Centre for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) on the Influenza Vaccine.

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James Gathany Female obtaining blood meal

The Aedes aegypti mosquito (Source: James Gathany)

For the first time ever, an entire city has been protected from Dengue Fever. The Australian city of Townsville has been dengue-free since 2014, and it’s all thanks to bacteria!

I know what you’re thinking:

“Aren’t bacteria the bad guys?”

I used to think bacteria were only good for one thing, causing disease, but it turns out many bacteria are helpful, and Wolbachia takes this to a whole new level.

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I didn’t have a birthday party with my friends until I was 15. Every year, without fail, I would get a bad cold the day before my birthday (queue the violins and single teardrop). My mom used to yell:

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This is a popular misconception; the truth is you CANNOT catch a cold just from being cold. Instead, most colds are caused by the most common infectious agent among humans: Rhinoviruses!

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Would you like to be able to set your friends mind at ease if they have concerns about vaccination? Perhaps you’d like to be better prepared for when you encounter an anti-vaxxer?

Well, then this article is for you.

One by one I’ll go through some of the most common arguments raised by anti-vaxxers, and provide some scientific evidence to refute them.

If there are any arguments you’ve heard, that I’ve not listed here, feel free to leave them in the comments section, and I’ll update this article as time goes by.

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Vaccination (Part 1): The Basics

Of the US population, it is estimated that :

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This post is not a battle cry against anti-vaxxers (that will come in part 2), but rather, a comprehensive review of the science behind vaccination. The aim is to help anyone who is unsure gain a better understanding of the facts and evidence supporting vaccination.

Hopefully what they find here, will improve their confidence and understanding of vaccination.

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My Research: Respiratory Syncytial Virus

“So what do you do?” 

“Have you heard of Respiratory Syncytial Virus?”

“No, never”

“What about Influenza”

“Oh yeah of course”

“Well its kind of like that…”

(The beginning of every conversation about my research)

So far, my posts have been focused on various aspects of PhD life. However I realised that I haven’t written anything about what my PhD is focused on. The big research question that I’ve devoted a few years of my life to. Well hopefully in this post, I’ll be able to explain what I’m working on and in particular, why my work is important.

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