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Before Coronavirus and COVID, before Ebola and HIV, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed more humans than all of World War I combined, over 50 Million people worldwide! In just over a year, the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ would infect a fifth of the world’s population. It still remains to this day THE most devastating epidemic in recorded history. More people died in that deadly year than in 4 years of the Dark Ages’ dreaded Black Death (aka the Bubonic Plague).
By the fall of 1918, World War I was finally winding down in Europe and peace negotiations had begun. America had joined the war in 1917, tipping the balance in favor of the Allies (Britain, France and Russia) and against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Earlier in the year however, in small pockets across the globe, what was first thought to be very bad cases of the common cold began to erupt. What was not normal was that many of these cases resulted in death.
The exact origin of the 1918 Flu Pandemic is unknown. The virus is believed to have mutated in Europe – a new, rare influenza variant, H1N1, with almost no human immunity. At the time, some thought it was biological warfare spread by the Germans in the trenches of France and Belgium. It first appeared at the war front at a hospital camp in Etaples, France in late 1917. The first US cases appeared at Fort Riley, a Kansas army base, in the early spring of 1918. More than 100 soldiers fell sick in just one day. Few doctors paid attention to the flu however, in the middle of a raging world war. It was erroneously dubbed The Spanish Flu since some of the largest mortality rates were first seen in Spain.
By the winter of 1918 however, a global flu epidemic could not be ignored. Children in the streets would skip rope to a frightening new nursery rhyme:
“I had a little bird … Its name was Enza … I opened up the window … And in-flu-enza!”Spanish Flu nursery rhyme
Thanks to fast, modern steamships, the epidemic methodically circled the globe along trade routes and shipping lines. Ironically, the outbreak swept the world even quicker due to the mass movements of army troops aboard those steam ships.
Doctor learned with horror that the Spanish Flu’s mortality rate was 20 times higher than previous recorded flus. Once people were struck with the disease they died rapid deaths, typically within 24 hours! Death came from a particularly vicious pneumonia until they literally turned blue and suffocated. The infected struggled to clear their fluid-filled lungs with the weak cough they could muster. A contagious, blood-tinged froth gushed from their nose and mouth with every attempt. Meanwhile, the relatively new science of infectious disease was helpless to treat it. There were no anti-viral drugs or flu vaccines in 1918.
Oddly, the Spanish flu was most lethal for those between 20 and 40, an unusual pattern since the flu usually killed young children and the elderly. Over one quarter of all Americans became infected causing 675,000 deaths, ten times as many as died in World War I. Young soldiers, men in their prime, were becoming ill in frighteningly large numbers. Of the U.S. troops who died in World War I, over half were from the flu, and not warfare in the trenches.
Ironically, the end of the war enabled a resurgence in the disease. As the world celebrated Armistice Day on November 11th, a second wave of the epidemic emerged as troops began returning home around the world, including the US, Canada, Russia, India and Australia. U.S. east coast ports reported sick soldiers in massive numbers, suffering with fevers as high as 105 degrees F (40.5 C). Within days, the disease had spread, via those sick men, westward by train, all the way to California.
With troops coming home having shrapnel wounds, amputations and mustard gas burns, hospitals were already taxed. Confronted with an acute shortage of hospital beds, schools had to be transformed into emergency hospitals. An instant doctor shortage occurred, forcing medical students to step up and act as interns, many of them getting sick as well. It was common for 1,000 victims to die A DAY in major global cities. Treatments of day like quinine, arsenic and strychnine were totally useless.
That terrible winter of 1918, millions more became infected and hundreds of thousands died.
As the disease spread across the countries of the world, schools and businesses closed. Telegraph and telephone service collapsed, garbage went uncollected on street curbs, the mail piled up in post offices. Where infections rose, quarantines were imposed on schools, theaters, and churches. Cities passed laws requiring people to wear cloths masks, even though they offered little protection from the infectious virus. Railroads would not accept passengers without a signed doctor’s certificate. Advertisements falsely suggested drinking alcohol prevented infection, causing a run on booze! Funerals were limited to 15 minutes and a quick burial. Corpses piled up with a shortage of coffins and gravediggers, resulting in the sad necessity of mass graves. Many families were forced to bury their own dead.
No one was left untouched by the pandemic. With one-fifth of the world infected, it was impossible to escape. Spain’s King Leopold died of the flu early on. Even US President Woodrow Wilson caught it in 1919, while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles at the end the World War 1. Former President Trump’s grandfather, Fredrich Trump, caught the Spanish Flu early in 1918 and died in New York City. Ironically, China was one of the least infected countries due to its isolation at the time.
A year later, by the spring of 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic blessedly slowed to a halt, as those that were infected, but survived, developed the so-called herd immunity. The deadly H1N1 virus may have also rapidly muted to a less lethal strain. The global death toll sits officially at 50 million souls, but is believed by the US Centers for Disease Control to be as high as 100 MILLION, including the under-reported poorer nations.
With today’s jet airlines, high speed trains and cruise ships, such a deadly and highly contagious disease could jump the globe in a matter of hours, rather than weeks or months that it took for COVID. The earth’s human population is far greater, denser and more interconnected than it ever was in 1918. Ironically, facemask wearing and social distancing are resisted today, just as they were by our ancestors a hundred years ago.
As we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are hesitant to lockdown their countries and close borders, then keep them that way for very long. Quarantines are slow to to be enacted, and will therefore be less effective at halting the spread of a highly infectious and highly deadly virus. Vaccines can be developed quicker now, but are only effective in halting the spread if the majority of the global population gets them. As we have seen from the COVID anti-vax movement, that simply does not happen. All sobering thoughts when contemplating our world’s next great pandemic to come.
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