Friday, October 17, 2014

Spitting Equals Death: The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918


I am not a doctor. I only pretended to be one in bars when I was single. (j/k) My EMS certification expired many years ago, but I'm still a handy person to have around should you suffer a gunshot or stab wound or sever your foot with a lawnmower. (Or cut your finger with a chainsaw, as my brother did recently.) I can even handle a sucking chest wound. If you get a cold though, you are on your own. I can handle trauma, not sickness. If you were to ask me "Hey Half A$$ Historian, what could bring down American society and lead to the collapse of our country?", I would give you two answers. First, you could wipe out all of our technology as in with an EMP weapon. In a matter of a few days, we would be back in the Stone Age. (Check out the novel One Second After for a good fictional depiction of that.) The second thing would be the outbreak of some pandemic virus that we could not adequately control. Recently the news has been full of sometimes factual and sometimes fearmongering information about the Ebola virus. While those with extreme political views on both sides tend to latch onto a tragedy in order to further their own political agenda, I think that perhaps we should put this into a little historical perspective. Why does the government freak out over Ebola or the Bird Flu or the Swine Flu? Well, because we've been down that road before, almost one hundred years ago, and it was bad. Really bad.

The pandemic of which I speak is known now as the Spanish Influenza. It ravaged the world during the waning months of the First World War. No one knows the exact origins of this flu as we were in the midst of a World War at the time and thus it spread very quickly, in an age without air travel. Given the close confines in which soldiers lived in the trenches, it easily moved from one host body to another. This flu hit in two different waves. The first wave was not nearly as deadly and those who recovered from it were more or less safe from the far deadlier second wave. Due to wartime censorship, Spain, as a neutral, received more international press coverage thus giving the pandemic its name. Some think that it originated in Spain, but that is not true.

When the second wave hit the US in the fall of 1918, it created a public health nightmare. Unlike the "regular" flu which is normally only fatal to those over 65. The Spanish Influenza seemed to favor younger victims. 99% of deaths in the United States were people under 65. Almost half of them were between the ages of 20 and 40! That is medically remarkable. Public meetings were banned in many cities. Police officers went around in masks, as did many civilians as well. When soldiers got sick they were sent to crowded field hospitals and spread the virus even further.

So how bad was it? John M. Barry who wrote a great book called The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History estimates that it killed over 100 million people worldwide. He states that it killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS did in 24 years and more than the Black Death did in 100 years. Somewhere around 675,000 Americans died and most of those within a short 12 weeks or so. Cities like Philadelphia dug mass graves with steam shovels. This, dear readers, is why the government gets so concerned about deadly viruses. No one wants to see another epidemic like this one. And if you think that modern medicine would save us, sadly you are incorrect. With my physical condition, the doctors can do no more for me than they could do 100 years ago. So no, medicine isn't as modern as we like to think. After all, they still call it "practicing medicine." Regardless, I hope that this gives you a little insight into why the media has jumped on the Ebola wagon. They'll ride that wagon until something else comes along.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

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