The world has been here before

  • Military pathologists believe that a British outpost in Etaples, France was the epicenter of the outbreak. In the winter of 1916-1917, with World War I still raging in Europe, reports of a new disease — one with a rapid onset and high spreadability — circled through the camp. When soldiers returned from the battlefields, they brought that disease with them. Eventually, hospitals were so overcrowded that overflow facilities, like this one at the Eberts Field military base in Arkansas, were created. Contributed photo/National Archive—

  • During the 1918 pandemic, the New York Health Board’s stance regarding wearing masts was: “Better be ridiculous than dead.” Contributed photo/National Archive

  • In St. Louis, Mo., shortly after the first cases of flu were detected, local health officials ordered schools, churches, courtrooms and libraries closed. Gatherings of more than 20 people were banned. This limited the number of flu deaths in the city. Contributed photo/National Archive

  • A Seattle streetcar conductor turned one commuter away because he wasn't wearing a mask.

For the Recorder
Published: 5/11/2020 9:07:54 AM

In March of 1918, Fort Riley, Kansas saw a rash of army soldiers sick with a new mysterious illness, several died. Camp Devers near Boston, also had sick soldiers and many deaths. These were among the first United States victims of what would become known as “The Spanish Flu.”

On May 22, 1918, Madrid, Spain’s ABC newspaper had headlines about a deadly flu epidemic in Spain. Most Spanish newspapers referred to it as the “French Flu.” No one will ever know precisely where the 1918 pandemic originated, but birds in France are highly likely. Why is it called the Spanish Flu? Because, as World War I was drawing to a close, the major countries of the world censored the news (the USA included). Reporting a deadly flu outbreak was prohibited in most countries because it might scare the public and/or negatively affect morale during wartime. So, other than neutral Spain, news of the flu that quickly became pandemic was not widely known until major papers in the U.S. timidly began to make mention of mounting deaths from “The Grippe” in early October of 1918. The trivial notes about the emerging flu still did not make headlines and the world was doomed to suffer a flu that spread like wildfire, since the public knew very little until it became disastrous. Closing the barn door long after the horse had left resulted in a third of the world’s population getting sick with the Spanish Flu, with deaths estimated to be 50 million or more worldwide. According to one source, roughly one of every 18 people in the world died from Spanish Flu. Records from around the world were sketchy or non-existent, so precise statistics are simply not possible. Even in the U.S., exact death figures from the Spanish Flu are unavailable, but estimates are about 675,000. The 1910 U.S. Census listed the nation’s population at just over 92 million.

The Spanish Flu is not the only pandemic the world has seen, just the most deadly in modern history. Other pandemics have occurred as recently as 2009, when the H1N1 virus went global. No doubt the world will experience more pandemics in the future. The most defining feature of any pandemic is its severity, as measured by infection and mortality rates — both of which were influenced by the ongoing war during the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

The U.S. entered WWI April 6, 1917. By the fall of 1918, more than 4 million men and women were serving in US armed forces. The extent of the flu in October of 1918 was so great that both Central and Allied forces were highly compromised in their ability to wage war, as all armies were experiencing huge numbers of incapacitated soldiers. WWI certainly accelerated and widened the spread of the flu. Soldiers of all nationalities were dying at alarming rates. The trenches were hardly sanitary; huge numbers of soldiers were in very close quarters. The result was more U.S. military persons dying from flu during WWI than in battle. The same was true for many other countries. By the end of October 1918, between the flu and combat, military attrition was so great that an armistice was reached. Also contributing to the agreement of the truce was the fact that the Central powers were losing ground since the U.S. added its weight to the Allied cause. The armistice took effect Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. Paris time. The allies had many discussions before the April 1919 meeting in Paris, where the big four world leaders convened to draw up the peace terms that ultimately became the Treaty of Versailles. Some sources speculate that President Woodrow Wilson caught the flu while at that April Peace Conference in Paris.

The Treaty of Versailles was finally signed June 28, 1919, which marked the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The terms of the treaty didn’t take effect until Jan. 10, 1920, 15 months after reaching the truce we now celebrate as Veteran’s Day. An end to WWI is one silver lining in the cloud known as the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Once the world was confronted with the undeniable existence and seriousness of the 1918 pandemic, interventions were put in place. There was no vaccine or antibiotic available for treatment or prevention, so containment was entirely dependent on the following 1918 interventions:

1. Isolation — public gatherings, school and large group assemblies were greatly limited or canceled.

2. Quarantine — those infected or exposed were separated and quarantined.

3. Personal hygiene — washing hands thoroughly and frequently was strongly advocated.

4. Liberal use of disinfectants everywhere.

5. Personal use of masks when in public and by medical personnel.

Any of those sound familiar? In time, the medical community discovered a number of ways to deal with the flu:

1. It was found that victims who had recovered from the flu had antibodies. Using the blood plasma from recovered patients and administering that plasma to sick people could help reduce the flu’s severity. It wasn’t a cure, but it did mitigate the effects of the flu and help patients recover.

2. Fresh air and sunshine were also considered beneficial in aiding recovery from the Spanish Flu. Although there is no hard proof of that, it was a therapy that was widely embraced with claimed results from several sources, especially military hospitals.

3. Enforcement of the interventions listed above, which created economic hardship in 1918 and 1919.

The Spanish Flu first struck in the spring and summer of 1918. Things settled down a bit and people relaxed and went back to business as usual, resulting in a second wave starting in September of 1918. The second wave was by far the deadliest. Around March of 1919, a third and final wave popped up. So much of the world’s population had been sick or killed in these three waves that immunity among survivors was finally enough to put the flu to rest.

Will COVID-19 be as disastrous as the 1918 Spanish Flu? Will we have to endure three waves of sickness? Will we be sensible and limit large gatherings? Will we limit our travels? Will we maintain social distancing, and observe interventions until a cure and/or vaccine is widely distributed?

That chapter of history is being written right now. It’s up to you and me to determine how our current pandemic plays out.

Most of the information contained in this commentary was sourced from The Centers for Disease Control’s website, the History Channel’s website and National Archives online.

Phil Nelson is a historian with ties to Franklin County. His father, also named Phil Nelson, served as a local minister for many years.

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