Spanish Flu Outbreak and Why We Called It Trancazo

men with face mask
Medics in masks at a US army hospital in 1918
While World War I was raging in Europe - hoards of otherwise healthy young men reported ill in cramped military bases and in the war's front lines. Soon, they reported experiencing the typical symptoms of flu. However, their medics soon realized that this is not the typical seasonal flu. Many of them will then suffer and die as the "Spanish flu" spread like wildfire and reach places far from Europe such as the Philippines.


It is interesting to note that if one gets to dig a bit deeper about the impact of the Spanish flu in the Philippines the word "Spanish flu" isn't usually used, but is often referred to as the trancazo or influenza. This all started in 1918 when the medical practitioner Francis Coutant who, upon seeing the increase of individuals with unusual symptoms of flu, realized that the Spanish flu has reached Manila. He observed that cases of the deadly flu were first seen among laborers along the waterfront near Manila’s ports, and then suggested that it had been brought in from ships coming from the Americas thus connoting that there was an outbreak there.

The United States during World War 1

The United States during that time, though, was deeply involved in the late part of World War 1. Being at the tipping point of the war, they wanted to keep the outbreak a secret as they didn’t want to divulge any weakness which can potentially be capitalized on by Germany. It is then here where the American Medical Journal was placed on position to contend what Coutant had earlier observed. They posited that the disease was of local origin and became severe only when mixed with the infection from outside. This then would serve as the basis for succeeding reports regarding the Spanish flu in the Philippines. Hence, in later public reports it wasn’t referred to as the Spanish flu, but the trancazo or influenza.

Although we rarely hear or read about the details of what happened during the influenza pandemic in the Philippines, a report released by the Philippine Health service of 1920 via the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal gives us an idea about the severity of the flu outbreak in 1918 Philippines.

The Report:

The year was a particularly disastrous one from the standpoint of epidemiology: never in its history, excepting perhaps during the years of the cholera epidemics of 1902 and 1903, have the resources of the Health Services been taxed so heavily. For this reason, although all the usual activities of the work were carried on throughout the year, few permanent sanitary improvements could be effected. Influenza and smallpox proved to be the most serious of the epidemiological problems during the year. From influenza alone there occurred an estimated 85,000 deaths. The disease appeared first in a mild form, with low mortality but the second wave which swept over the archipelago from Aparri to Sulu from the latter part of September to the end of the year caused a mortality of about 1.8 percent. Most of the deaths were due to respiratory, cardiac, and renal complications. 

Gealogo, F. A. (2009). The Philippines in the world of the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919. philippine studies, 57(2), 272-281.
History. (2018, May 22).

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