Great War Wednesday: 1918 Flu Pandemic

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Flu_viruaThe Great War provided a plethora of ways a man could meet his Maker; some were even quite novel. He could take a rifle bullet to the vitals from across No Man’s Land, or even be riddled with rifle bullets from one of the new machine guns as he charged across the broken way. He could disappear into a fine red mist if an artillery shell landed in the midst of him and his buddies. A sudden gas shell attack could dissolve his lungs in his chest. Given the right terrain and weather, he could drown in sticky, soupy mud. He could even fall out of the sky, burning like a candle, in one of the new airplanes if his enemy got behind him or the ground fire was accurate enough.

Novelty is fine and all, but for sheer staggering numbers of piled up corpses, it’s hard to beat the old black horse from St. John’s Book of Revelation — Pestilence. From the dawn of time until the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, disease killed more men in war than stones, swords, and shells. That was the first war where combat caused more casualties than disease, but in 1918, a plague fell over the entire world which would try to rethrone pestilence. The great killer was the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.

First, though, we need to clear up a little nomenclature. This outbreak has come down through history bearing the name of the “Spanish Flu.” Because of the name, many people believe the flu originated in Spain. This is patently false. The disease picked up the name of Spanish Flu because of Spain’s neutral stance in World War One. In countries where men were off at war, military censors cut, redacted, or at least downplayed the outbreak. Because Spain was neutral, her press was free to report whatever about the flu. Since most of the early reports of the disease came from Spanish media sources, people assumed Spain was the epicenter of the flu when in fact, it was a matter of reporting. Spain suffered a proportionate number of flu deaths, but no more than any other nation.

In fact, the flu first appeared in the United States in early March 1918 at a military installation called Camp Funston in Fort Reilly, Kansas. Several men reported to sick call with normal flu-like symptoms. From these humble beginnings, the pandemic exploded, especially when American troops landed in Europe to fight in the Great War.

The disease traveled across oceans and through mountain passes. India was devastated as was China. Unlike many diseases, isolation and distance did not slow this strain. Millions of cases broke out across Australia, New Zealand, and even reached remote Pacific outposts like Fiji and the Christmas Islands. It truly was a global killer. Estimates of total number of individuals infected stand at fully one-third of the world population. This exceeded even the infamous Black Death in 15th Century Europe.

Death was widespread as well. The most conservative number is 20 million fatalities, while at the other end of the spectrum, people have put forth a chilling 100 million deaths. Exact counts are difficult because of the sheer scale of the outbreak, but if the upper number is close to the truth, the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 killed more people than both world wars combined. What scientists are still trying to figure out and debating, however, is what exactly made the Spanish Flu H1N1 strain such a killer, and so much deadlier than other previous and subsequent flus.

We know the Spanish Flu was an avian flu of the H1N1 strain. If that sounds familiar it’s because a similar H1N1 strain known as “The Bird Flu” broke out in China several years ago and threatened to break out into a pandemic that fortunately was averted. It killed the typical targets flu usually takes, the very young and the elderly, but what made this flu unique is how hard it hit the 20 – 40 year-old demographic. These are usually healthy adults whose immune systems generally shake off the flu after a few sick days.

This flu wouldn’t shake, however. It attacked the lungs with a vengeance, causing air space to fill with fluid. Deprived of oxygen, many people died and those who did more often than not developed pneumonia as a secondary infection and without even penicillin or sulfa antibiotics, those with pneumonia perished more than recovered.

The pandemic reached its peak killing capacity around December 1918. Contributing to the deaths was the sheer number of cases. Even in the most developed countries and cities, healthcare systems were overwhelmed. Hospitals pulled in people beyond their capacity. The number of deaths swamped funeral homes. At the height of the outbreak, people lost the luxury of single family funerals. Instead, many of the dead were interred in mass graves even in America.

By the spring of 1919, the Spanish Flu seemed to have shot its shot. Total number of cases tapered off and the strain on healthcare eases enough to allow for better treatment and proper quarantines. The world wide killer had passed on.

Today, we are still under threats of an outbreak of a disease like Spanish Flu. Thankfully, modern antibiotics — though not the panacea they once were — and better overall hygiene help keep outbreaks manageable, but the same flu strain that killed so many people is still out there. The CDC and a few other labs around the world have samples of flu-infected tissues taken from bodies in colder regions. The Spanish Flu lives on in captivity, but could it ever break free and ravage the world again? Only time will tell.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean!

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