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The Spanish Flu of 1918 was not Caused by an Experimental Vaccine Against Meningitis

An anti-vaccine myth I hadn’t seen before, I found it on the dubious website SOTT.org. The article claims that most deaths ascribed to the Spanish flu were actually killed by bacterial pneumonia, caused by a vaccine against meningitis that was tested by the US Army. It is easily debunked.

The article on SOTT.org

Recently a more general myth was circulating, that the 1918 influenza pandemic was caused by vaccines, without specifying which vaccines. The Reuters Fact Check team wrote a fact check on this. But the theory published on the SOTT website is a bit more intricate.

The article claims that most deaths (95% or higher) were caused by bacterial pneumonia, not the influenza virus itself. This is probably true, and the author refers amongst others to an article published in 2008 by Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and two colleagues.

From the article by Morens, Taubenberger & Fauci (2008)

So we learn that these cases of pneumonia were caused by commonly present bacteria like pneumococci, streptococci and staphylococci, which were able to go wild as the patients’ immune system was weakened by the influenza virus.

Now we get to the other part of this myth, the vaccine. For this, the author bases his assumptions on the report by Frederick Gates, published in October 1918. It is about a vaccination trial against meningitis which took place between November 1917 and February 1918 on a US Army base. First, the best dosage schedule for the vaccination was determined in small groups and then about 4,000 volunteers took three shots.
The vaccine was meant to protect the men against epidemic meningitis caused by meningococci and consisted of some types of meningococci that were made harmless by heating. It was made by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

The vaccine was created using different strains of meningococci

Meningococci are not mentioned as an important cause for the cases of pneumonia in patients with Spanish flu. [Edited, see below]. It would also be very unlikely that these bacteria were mixed up as meningococci are Gram-negative bacteria and the other bacteria (pneumococci, streptococci and staphylococci) are Gram-positive, so they are very easily differentiated with Gram staining.

This myth has some aspects that seem plausible at first sight: the time and place of the vaccination trial fit quite well with the ‘first official patient’ of the Spanish flue being mentioned as an Army cook in the same camp, but there are good arguments to assume that the influenza virus had been going around for some time before.

On the SOTT website, it looks like Dr. Gary G. Kohls wrote the article, but it is actually little more than a repost of an article written by antivaccine lawyer Kevin Barry in November 2018 on the vile website Age of Autism.


Correction 14 August 2020
The original sentence in the text suggested that meningococcal pneumonia was not observed at all, which is not correct. Fauci et al. wrote that pneumonia in Spanish Flu patients was predominantly caused by pneumococci, streptococci, and staphylococci. There have been case reports of meningococcal pneumonia, however, but the numbers described are very low in comparison with the other pathogens (see Vossen 2016).

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