Friday, March 16, 2012

Flu Fridays: Looking back at the 1918 flu pandemic

It’s Flu Friday, and today we’re going to do a little time travel.

Ninety-four years ago this week, in March of 1918, more than 100 cases of flu were reported among soldiers at Fort Riley, Kan. These would be the first American cases of a flu outbreak that became the most deadly epidemic in world history.

[Image: Street car conductor
in Seattle not allowing passengers
aboard without a mask, 1918.
Courtesy National Archives at College Park, MD.]
At the time it was known as “Spanish flu,” or “la Grippe,” but despite the nickname, this flu wasn’t just in Spain — it was global. By the time the pandemic ended in 1919, one-third of the world’s population had gotten sick, and 50 million to 100 million people died. In the U.S., one out of every four Americans got the flu, and at least 675,000 people were killed.

Why was this flu virus so deadly? At the time, doctors didn’t know what caused the flu.  But experts now believe that the 1918 flu pandemic was caused by a type of influenza A virus that had never infected humans before. Because it was a new strain of the flu, no one had resistance to the virus, which allowed it to spread very quickly.

The virus was also dangerous because it killed primarily healthy, young people: Most people who died from the 1918 flu pandemic were between the ages of 20-40. If you’re a viewer of the show “Downton Abbey,”  you’ll have seen this play out this season, when several characters became ill and at least one died during the pandemic.

What was it like in real life during the flu pandemic? In a word, hard. Life came to a standstill in many cities across the U.S. Public gatherings were canceled and people were told to avoid trains and trolleys to prevent the flu from spreading. Hospitals around the country were overcrowded as more people became sick with the flu.

[Image: Nurse wearing a mask
as protection against influenza. Sept. 13, 1918.
Courtesy National Archives at College Park, MD.]
As one doctor at a military hospital near Boston wrote in 1918, “We have lost an outrageous number of nurses and doctors…It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days, there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce.”

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: “The 1918 flu was serious back then, but why should we care now?” The answer is that it could happen again. If a new virus emerged that was as deadly and quick-spreading as the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated it “would likely kill more than 100 million people worldwide.”

[Image: Chicago theatre poster, 1918,
courtesy National Library of Medicine.]
The great news is that we’re now better equipped to detect new strains of the flu, both at the doctor’s office and even from your home computer, thanks to tools like Flu Near You. We’re also doing a better job at teaching people how to prevent the flu, making new vaccines and treating people who become sick. By looking back in history, we can learn from the past and make changes so that we’re prepared for the future.

And to be sure, one piece of advice from 1918 still remains the same: If you’re sick with the flu, “go home and go to bed until you are well.” (And call the doctor, if necessary.)

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