If You Think Corona is Scary, You Need to Know About the Spanish Flu
Pandemic of 1918
As scary as the threat of a Coronavirus pandemic is, it’s not as frightening as what happened in 1918.
A century ago, a strain of the flu traveled throughout the entire world, infecting 500 MILLION people, one-third of the world’s population. By the end of the 15-month pandemic, at least 50 million people were dead, with some estimates being as high as 100 million.
People called the virus, “The Spanish Flu,” for several reasons:
- Spain’s population was hit hard with the virus, infecting even the King of Spain
- Most countries were involved in WWI, the United States included, and because of that, the press was censored.
- The Spanish press was not censored, and the King’s illness was widely publicized.
In fact, the term Spanish Flu was a misnomer. Many experts think that the epidemic actually started in Haskell County, Kansas. In January of 1918, one local doctor, Loring Miner, was so alarmed by the number of flu and influenza cases in Haskell County that he alerted the U.S. Public Health Service.
Why Haskell County, Kansas? First, because it’s directly on the flight path of dozens of migratory birds, known carriers of Avian flu. Second, because it was a place that raised hogs, and hogs can carry both avian and human influenza viruses. After Dr. Miner reported the significant number of cases in his county, several Haskell men who had been exposed to the virus traveled to Camp Funston, located on the Fort Riley, Kansas base, where military men were being trained before they went overseas.
Eleven hundred sick men were admitted to the hospital within two weeks, and when the hospital had no more room, thousands of men — ill with the virus — stayed in their barracks. Men were shipped oversees to war, carrying the contagion with them. In the meantime, civilian populations were struck.
The Spanish Flu came in three waves
The first wave
The first wave of the flu, while it infected lots of people, was rarely lethal. Often referred to as the three-day flu, the military reported that the virus was over by July of 1918.
The second wave
The second wave was far more intense than the first wave. In fact, it was deadly. It possibly started in Switzerland but infiltrated the United States in September of 1918 when a soldier at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, was admitted to the hospital and misdiagnosed with meningitis. The next day, a dozen more men were admitted. They had the flu, not meningitis. It spread quickly, and at its peak, 1543 soldiers at Camp Devens were diagnosed IN ONE DAY. The lethal second wave at Camp Devens quickly spread to Boston, located just 35 miles away, and from there it leaped into cities and towns across America.
The third wave
A third wave began in January of 1919. Because most people thought the second wave was over and had eased precautions, and because of the mass celebration of Armistice Day, 1919, a third wave of the Spanish Flu began to spread. It, too, was deadly but did not kill as many people as the second wave.
The virus had lost some of its potency. Human immune systems recognized it now, and it was no longer strong enough to invade the lungs, so it became a seasonal influenza virus.
Why the 1918 Flu was so deadly
The Spanish Flu was different from other influenzas. First, it attacked not just the upper respiratory systems, but the lower one as well, making it more contagious and deadly.
Patients in the second wave of the flu often died within hours. According to Roy Gist, a physician working at the Devens hospital filled with influenza patients,
“…when brought to the hospital, they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission, they have mahogany spots over the cheekbones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face…It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes. It is horrible. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day…For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce…”
Because of the compromised respiratory system, infected patients would often turn blue from the lack of oxygen, cough up blood, and would bleed from ears, nose, and eyes.
The second trait of the Spanish flu that made it different from what had come before was that it killed healthy young people in the 20–45-year-old age group. Why would the strongest people in the population fall victim? Because their healthy lungs contained more natural chemicals called cytokines and other microbe-fighting toxins, and those biomechanisms attacked the virus in their lungs so fiercely that it caused damage to their own tissues. The phenomenon has been named “cytokine storms.”
Sobering facts about the 1918 Flu Pandemic
- 14% of the population of Fiji died within 16 days
- Russia and Iran had as much as 7% of the population die from the flu
- One-third of the population of Labrador died
- Whole villages in Alaska and Gambia were wiped out
- More American soldiers died from the flu than were killed in battle
- 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu
- In San Antonio, Texas, 53% of the population was infected
- In Philadelphia, 759 people died in one day
As a result of these devastating statistics, there were not enough people to take care of the sick, not enough hospitals or doctors. Graves couldn’t be dug fast enough, resulting in family members digging the graves for their own family members, and in some places, the dead were buried in mass graves. Businesses, schools, banks, transportation systems, and manufacturing facilities shut down. The economy was drastically impacted.
Advantages we have now that we didn’t have in 1918
- We now have drugs, antivirals, and medicines that didn’t exist a hundred years ago
- Our society can communicate quickly with other agencies, countries, and health organizations to monitor disease and develop strategies to minimize the spread of disease
- Hospitals have more awareness of how to effectively quarantine infected patients and prevent further contagion with biohazard protocols.
- Health organizations like the Center for Disease Control and others have vast amounts of research available to track the spread and to accumulate data that will help contain the spread
- We have rapid testing, labs, and a worldwide community of medical professionals
- The United States has 1.1 million physicians. (In 1918, there was a shortage of medical personnel because of the number of doctors and nurses serving the military overseas)
What we can learn from mistakes made during the 1918 epidemic
In 1918, many cases were diagnosed at first as meningitis. The lesson we can learn is to be aware of new threats, careful not to diagnose quickly.
In 1918, because many countries were at war and the press was censored, very little information got out. In fact, the Sedition Act of 1918, expressly prohibited people from doing anything that might slow down the manufacturing of goods for the war. The bill made it a crime to
“willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States” or to“willfully urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of the production” of the things “necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.”
The press could not discuss the pandemic outwardly because people might be afraid to go to work. Newspapers might be accused of printing something detrimental to the needs of the government, so many public officials, newspapers, and magazines refused to run stories about the danger or letters from doctors pleading with people to stay home.
The lesson? Tell the truth. Logically. Rationally. Without hype or dramatization. To find the balance between preparedness and panic.
Finally, in 1918, the New York City Health Commissioner came up with an innovative strategy to try to slow the progression of the flu. He ordered businesses to open and close on staggered schedules to avoid overcrowding on the subways.
The lesson here is that there are lots of ways we can plan to reduce the spread of a pandemic — if it comes to that. We can hope that we can be as innovative as that New York City Health Commissioner and devise new ways to eliminate the spread of disease.
Hopefully, the great minds of the world are working on a universal vaccine that will combat most influenzas and keep pandemics from occurring in the future.
My own personal connection to this story came from the fact that my grandfather and my grandfather’s brother both lost their wives during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Secondly, I read Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider depiction of the deadly influenza outbreak and remembered the pain and horror of it.