VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte is wrong; Spanish flu outbreak did not precede WWI

Read this fact check in Filipino

President Rodrigo Duterte erred in claiming that the Spanish flu pandemic happened before the First World War (WWI) started in 1914.


In a recent speech on the government’s COVID-19 updates, Duterte talked in passing about the nature of pandemics and how they recur throughout generations:

[A]lam mo sa totoo lang (You know, honestly) a pandemic is a pandemic. It occurs maybe every — I don’t know. But noong panahon ng (during the)… Well, that was the Spanish flu just before the First World War. Iyon talagang maraming milyon ang namatay (There were really millions of people who died then).”

Source: RTV Malacañang, Meeting with the IATF-EID and Talk to the People on COVID-19, May 25, 2020, watch from 3:01 to 3:20.

The president then reiterated the importance of vaccines in dealing with such outbreaks. Even then, he said:

“But to say na nawala ‘yon (they were eliminated) -- you do not kill bacteria and viruses. They linger on for as long as mankind is in (sic) this planet.”


Contrary to Duterte’s claim, the Spanish flu outbreak began in 1918, four years after WWI started.

Known as the “most severe pandemic in recent history,” the disease broke out “in the fall of 1918,” at a time when WWI was already “winding down,” according to Stanford University’s account.

The War, which lasted from July 1914 to November 1918, “probably aided” the disease’s “rapid diffusion and attack” due to “mass movement of men in armies and aboard ships,” the report said.

The Spanish flu outbreak, which later became known as the 1918 influenza, ravaged several nations around the world until 1919. An estimated 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population at the time, were infected by the disease, killing at least 50 million people, according to an explainer of the U.S. Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the December 1918 edition of its journal, the American Medical Association said:

“The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all--infectious disease.”

Sources: Hogan, D., and Burnstein, J. (2007). Disaster Medicine Second Edition (p. 44), Wolters Kluwer | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Stanford University, The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, June 1997

The 1918 influenza pandemic is now known to have been caused by the H1N1 virus with genes that originated from birds. However, “there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated,” the U.S. CDC said. -- with reports from Manny Mirabite Jr.


RTV Malacañang, Meeting with the IATF-EID and Talk to the People on COVID-19, May 25, 2020

U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus), Accessed May 29, 2020, The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, June 1997

National Geographic, Influenza, Accessed May 29, 2020

National Geographic, Inside the swift, deadly history of the Spanish flu pandemic, 2018, Spanish flu, Oct. 12, 2010

National Geographic, What caused World War I and what were its effects?, April 11, 2019

Britannica Encyclopedia, World War I, Accessed May 29, 2020, World War I, Oct. 29, 2009

U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, History of 1918 Flu Pandemic, Accessed May 29, 2020

Hogan, D., and Burnstein, J. (2007). Disaster Medicine Second Edition (p. 44), Wolters Kluwer | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)


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