Twists and turns keep the plot of Downton Abbey rolling. One twist was unsurprising – the arrival of Spanish flu just as the war was winding down. The flu pandemic that swept around the world and killed an estimated 40 million people (some scientists estimate that as many as 100 million died globally) in three waves in 1918, 1919, and 1920 spread quickly via troop movements and global transportation. One major problem in containing the pandemic was that in 1918 governments were primarily concerned with the war and were caught flat-footed in containing the pandemic when it struck. The first wave of the pandemic was the most deadly.
The Spanish flu resulted in a particularly virulent and lethal pandemic. At the time people did not yet understand how flu was spread or how to take precautions against it. All they could do was stay indoors and wear masks when venturing outside. Two age groups that were especially susceptible were babies less than a year old and healthy young adults between the ages of 15 and 35. The flu usually killed the very young and the very old, but this virus strain attacked teens and young adults with robust immune systems. Immune cells were activated by the virus, increasing the number of immune cells circulating in the blood and overwhelming the lungs with fluids.
Healthy young adults essentially drowned from within. Some patients died only a few hours after their first symptoms appeared; others died in a matter of days. Patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance.
In the US, twenty five percent of the population was afflicted by the flu. More remarkably, in only one year the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 12%.
As happened in real life, a number of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants contracted the flu. Some survived and others did not. Edwardian Promenade has written a more detailed account on this topic.
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