Fall 1918, the "Spanish Flu" in Mexico

Find out how the so-called "Spanish flu", surrounded the entire country for more than five months - June to October - of the year 1918.

Fall 1918, the "Spanish Flu" in Mexico
In the port of Veracruz, the first outbreaks of Spanish flu also began. Image: Veracruz antiguo

The poet José Juan Tablada chronicled the uncertainty experienced in Mexico City, in February 1913, due to the confrontation that arose in different parts of the capital during the ten days preceding the fall of President Francisco I. Madero. In the writer's words, its inhabitants experienced a mixture of agonizing stupor when they imagined being touched by the "destructive and deadly power" of armed violence. Although, an epidemic threatens and stalks the members of a population with a similar strategy, the so-called "Spanish flu", surrounded the entire country for more than five months - June to October - of the year 1918.

Following the "logic" of a disease with a behavior (progressive transmission), and characteristics (rapid and massive infection), like this one, the 1918 influenza has been described as the "greatest health catastrophe in the history of the twentieth century", because it extinguished the lives of between 40 and 60 million people around the globe in just two years. Scholars of the history of medicine, health, and epidemiology say that the only areas where there was no evidence of cases were Antarctica, the mouth of the Amazon, and some remote islands in the South Atlantic.

Mexico heard about the flu in June 1918, when several national and local newspapers reported outbreaks in the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Veracruz. As days went by, these reports managed to displace the attention paid to the war in Europe, because until then, readers had avidly followed the events that occurred during the First World War (1914-1918).

The 1918 influenza extinguished the lives of between 40 and 60 million people worldwide.

Characterized by historian Eric Hobsbawm as "the beginning of the age of catastrophes," the first great war was the backdrop for a crisis that, in a few years, would spill over from the political-military to the social and human spheres. Practically enveloped by an environment of "total war", Mexico did not escape a dynamic of confrontation, despite the efforts to reorder itself institutionally with the promulgation of the 1917 Constitution, still facing serious difficulties to redirect its political, economic, and, above all, social life.

As if that weren't enough, another element that contributed to the unrest and social problems of the period 1917-1920 was the outbreak of various epidemics that continuously affected the Mexican population - mainly yellow fever, typhoid, and smallpox - reinforced by migrants who went to the United States and then returned intermittently to the national territory, delaying the settlement of the population. Moreover, the continuous transit of troops of American origin that embarked and disembarked in the ports of Tampico and Veracruz to go to fight, produced an unprecedented "mobility" of people that would end up influencing the appearance of highly contagious "evils" of global spread.

With the war, it came, with the war it went...

Having as a background the typhoid epidemic that devastated the country since the beginning of the revolution in places like Mexico City, Tabasco, Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Puebla, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, and Durango, the health authorities of Venustiano Carranza's government gave little interest to the news known in June 1918, because they considered that it was - due to the similarity in some symptoms: fever and general malaise -, of a second wave of the disease transmitted by the louse, which had found in our battlefields a propitious means to lodge and attack a "hungry people and subject to privations of all kinds, such as unrest and misery. "

This false "perception" changed to a state of alarm in the first days of October, since the press published that on the northern border, specifically in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, there were "thousands" of people infected by a disease called "Spanish flu", which made it imperative to contain its expansion and prevent it from reaching the center of the country. To achieve their objective, the health authorities issued immediate instructions to the states of that region, to stop the push of the "infection". However, in a short time, Ciudad Juarez, Torreon, and Saltillo became the first locations to make known the advanced and highly progressive state of the disease.

Thousands of people infected with the "Spanish flu" were recorded on the northern border of the country.

The General Health Council, created in 1917 to attend to public health, was quick to dictate urgent measures against the epidemic. For this reason, it ordered the suspension of rail traffic in the cities where influenza had reached the highest proportions. It also determined that the freight trains should be checked by doctors who would certify the cleanliness and safety conditions in which they were found. Finally, it also ordered that those responsible for hotels, pensions, schools, and families notify the existing cases in their respective communities, to prevent the possible circulation of the sick in the streets.

On the other hand, meeting places or entertainment venues such as cinemas, theaters, clubs, canteens, and grocery stores were closed in town halls where the disease had already attacked. School premises, of course, did not escape this regulation. In the end, free pedestrian traffic was prohibited between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. to "sweep and clean" the streets with soap and water. Family members and caregivers of the sick were asked to wear cotton nose plugs and periodically disinfect their hands with a solution of creoline and carbolic acid. They were instructed not to visit those affected by the disease, much less "lie with them in the same bed, or use their plates, glasses, and silverware".

In order to "thoroughly sweep and clean" the streets with soap and water, pedestrian traffic was suspended from 11 pm to 4 am.

Despite the measures adopted, flu transmission was not significantly mitigated, so authorities began to warn the capital given the imminent arrival of the epidemic since by mid-October, there had been cases in the States of Michoacán, Hidalgo, Aguascalientes, Tlaxcala, and Puebla. Thus, Mexico City was protected with the installation of camps and brigades formed by the military medical corps. Like those who wait for the inevitable, in that autumn of 1918, a great part of the citizens of Mexico City was distressed to read newspaper articles reporting on "exposed or unburied corpses" in Ciudad Juarez and Puebla due to the lack of space in the cemeteries.

However, due to its magnitude, strength, and consequences, on the 9th of November 1918, the only good news brought by the "Spanish flu" to Mexico began to appear, because it was finally reported on its gradual decrease in the national territory, giving the country's inhabitants a respite and true encouragement. Shortly after, on November 11, the national and international press published the headlines about the end of the First World War, the one for which millions of human beings begged to be "the last to leave their mark in rows of grayish, murmuring, fear-tinged faces".

On November 9, 1918, the gradual decline of the "Spanish flu" in Mexico was reported.