Influenza is the name given to the viral infection of the respiratory system. Influenza is severe and sudden in onset, usually lasting for about a week. The virus is spread through droplets released by coughs and sneezes. Influenza is commonly shortened to ‘flu’.
The main symptoms are a fever (high temperature), exhaustion, aches, coughing, blocked nose, sneezing, sore throat and dehydration. Elderly people who catch flu are at a greater risk of developing complications that can lead to more serious cases.
Flu viruses mutate and change regularly so one person can catch flu multiple times in their lifetime. A flu vaccine is developed annually to protect against news strains of the virus. This vaccine is administered in autumn to protect against flu during the winter, when it is most common.
Overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions meant that influenza, like other infectious diseases, spread readily within urban communities in Victorian Britain. In his 1842 report Edwin Chadwick noted that influenza and other infectious diseases ‘ravaged’ the ‘worst parts of towns’ and the residences of the labouring classes. His report established the association between the standard of living conditions and sanitation, with the spread of disease. In the late 19th century a transition was taking place, from the belief that bad odours (miasmas) caused disease, to an early understanding of ‘germ, theory’ and the role of microorganisms in the spreading of infectious disease.
Young children and infants do not have a fully developed immune system. For this reason, the young were particularly vulnerable to flu. In the Burial Registers, the most frequently appearing role within those with the cause of death recorded as influenza, is ‘child’.
Influenza had a severe presence throughout the 19th century in Britain. In 1889 there was a pandemic of influenza. This was thought to have spread from Siberia westwards throughout Europe, reaching Britain in 1890. Instances of influenza remained fairly high in the following years. In 1918-19 there was an additional pandemic, historic for its deadliness and swift global spread. The 1918-19 influenza pandemic is thought to have caused 25 million deaths in 6 months, affecting every continent of the world. During the First World War newspapers were censored and reports of the fatalities were minimised. However, because Spain was neutral, newspapers freely reported the effects of influenza in Spain, causing the pandemic to become known as the ‘Spanish Flu ’. The movement of soldiers across the globe and the close proximity troops lived in is thought to have accelerated the spread of the disease.
People who have suffered from influenza have weakened immune systems which makes them particularly susceptible to pneumonia. A corresponding pneumonia epidemic followed. During the First World War, the German U boat campaign, which targeted the allies' trade routes, caused food shortages and severe food rationing. People in Britain were undernourished, and children, pregnant women and nursing mothers were particularly affected. The lack of nourishment and vitamins made people more vulnerable and contributed to the severity of the 1918-19 pandemic. The Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers show a spike in the number of deaths caused by influenza in conjunction with the 1918-19 flu epidemic.
In the city of Leeds in 1891 there were 184 fatalities resulting from influenza, the equivalent of an annual death rate in Leeds of 0.67 per estimated 1000 people of the population. In the year of the 1918 flu epidemic, there were an astounding 1401 deaths in Leeds alone, responsible for a death rate of 3.28 per 1000 of the population. The following year in 1919, the number of fatalities from influenza was still high at 623, with a death rate of 1.45. In 1920 there were 170 deaths (and an annual death rate of 0.38). 10 years on in 1930 there were only 59 deaths from influenza in Leeds, an annual death rate for the city of 0.12 per 1000 of the population.
In the 1930s, researchers identified that viruses were the cause of influenza and developed a vaccine that was initially used within the US military. To find out more about people buried in the Leeds General Cemetery who died of influenza, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.