The “Spanish” Flu in Hungary
Olga Vállay Szokolay
In my childhood, the grownups still talked a lot about the “Spanyol” – referring to the so-called Spanish Flu. Not only claimed the controversial 1918 pandemic astronomical numbers of lives, it allegedly left some recovered patients with latent side effects that made the victims extremely vulnerable to undisclosed maladies. Years later I learned that both my husband’s parents, afflicted with the disease in their younger years, died prematurely – although six years apart – both at age 49, due to a residual susceptibility and weakness of some of their organs. Following the pandemic, doctors shared the opinion worldwide that various side effects were commonplace.
The disease was mysterious on many levels and was further camouflaged by the media. Even the most famous doctors declared that it was nothing more than a regular cold or flu, same symptoms, lasting 2-3 days, full recovery. In reality, as confirmed by recent analysis of corpses and their genetic material cold-preserved in Alaska, the Spanish flu pandemic was caused by an avian influenza virus, more specifically the A type H1N1 variant. The 1918 pathogen was allegedly 39,000 times more virulent than flu viruses today. The virus was so fast that someone could wake up with a severe cough, leave for work and could die on his way.
Data on the disease in the spring of 1918 is vague. If any, it appeared in the countryside. All we know is that on June 14th, 1918 the reputable daily paper Pesti Hirlap wrote that the Spanish flu was remitting. Three days later the virus appeared even in Budapest.
Based on scattered contemporary news, it seems that initially, in June, the virus involved only smaller groups, especially ones in contact with prisoners of war and soldiers. Accounts of the disease appeared during the rest of the summer, but the situation became really tragic only later.
After months of the authorities and the press whitewashing the seriousness of the situation, the disease gained new strength in September. To make the circumstances more severe, there were not enough physicians, since many were still with the troops at the battlefields. Some of them were released from the military to help against the pandemic only in October. Also, communications as well as health care conditions of the day were far from adequate in Hungary, even in Budapest. Ambulances did not take “pandemic patients”. According to an article in Friss Ujság, October 9th, 1918, a girl was found roaming in the street looking for a hospital. Since it took three hours from the first call for the vehicle of the disinfection institute to get her, by then the girl had developed a pneumonia-related heart weakness and died after a short agony of a heart attack in the street, “among the ringing tram cars”.
The September 28th edition of Pesti Napló blamed the authorities for being unprepared and waking up to reality after the Spanish flu had ravaged for three weeks, and put in force certain regulations only then instead of at the onset of the pandemic. The mayor of Budapest, after consulting with his medical adviser, ordered establishing separate wards to take care of Spanish flu patients. He considered closing all locations where people meet in large numbers, primarily schools, if the pandemic does not stop. Thus, all precautionary measures were implemented too late.
One of the most serious complications of the pandemic was pneumonia. Yet the Hungarian press denied any relation between the two, even in September. They had to admit later that they were wrong, very wrong.
Ultimately, they closed schools in the autumn of 1918. While the closing was meant for two weeks only, the school breaks lasted several months. Various compromises were initiated for the operation of cinemas and theaters, as well as streetcars. Adequate ventilation was required which meant open windows on the trams, even in the winter.
The second wave was extremely severe. In September-October 1918, it was no longer possible to conceal the destruction of the pandemic. Hungarian newspapers wrote regularly about the infection and the health officials published a regular daily summary report. The disease slightly eased in late October and early November but intensified again by the end of November.
Oddly, the virus devastated not the elderly, but the healthy young people between the ages of 20 and 40. Scientists speculated that while older people might have become exposed to and immunized against such infections earlier, the younger age group had not yet encountered this type of virus in their lifetime. Among middle-aged people, the virus primarily threatened those already having a serious illness. The mega-famous poet Ady Endre died at the end of January 1919 and in its January 28th necrology, the daily Népszava mentioned the Spanish flu as the direct cause of his death. Another famous literary figure, Kaffka Margit, also died of the disease, together with her young son.
A few days after the murder of former Prime Minister Count Tisza István, the November 7th issue of Népszava reported that his son, Huszár-Lieutenant Tisza István Jr. died of the Spanish flu on the family estate at Geszt.
In the complicated times with the end of the war and its chaotic aftermath (see elsewhere in this issue) involving the Aster Revolution, Népszava reported the victory of the revolution on the front page, while mentioning the public healthcare orders of the National Council on the sixth page. The pandemic also took its toll in the rural areas, as scores of newspaper articles across the country testified.
To aggravate the pandemic, the water was shut off at night in Budapest. Citing the need for repair work on pipes and lack of material for the venture, the situation remained unresolved for months.
Numerical data of the sick and deceased by January is so conflicting that it is not worth mentioning. February 1919, however, was the first month with only one casualty.
The Spanish flu was the worst pandemic of the 20th century, probably of recorded history, claiming far more victims than World War I itself. The worldwide numbers, however, are as loose as the ones of Hungary. For ease of conceiving the magnitude, the global numbers were established as follows:
Spanish flu infections: 500 million, about one third of the world’s population at the time.
Spanish flu deaths: 50 million, or 10% of the infected
Numerical data for Hungary would probably dwarf by comparison. Due to the inconsistent and often contradicting records, not even a reliable estimate is available. For orientation, we can accept a report by Az Est, of January 3rd, 1919, based on flimsy national data that by October 1918, 44,000 Hungarians had died of the pandemic. This number was considered underestimated.
Had the authorities and the press been more sincere and prudent about the disease, ordering stricter limitations of gathering, social distancing and hygiene, the numbers probably would have been significantly lower. Yet, considering that virology was still in its first decades, the possibility of medical intervention would have been questionable at best.
Trying to make sense of our today’s predicament with the Coronavirus, we naturally compare it with the 1918 Spanish flu and try to draw conclusions from it. If there is anything we should learn, it is the need for honesty and early preventive measures.
Better safe than sorry!
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.