06/27/07 - influenza

In today's excerpt - the 'Spanish flu':

"Horse-drawn carts plied the streets with a call to bring out the dead in the city where bodies lay unburied for days. The afflicted die by the thousands, and survivors lived in fear. But this wasn't medieval Europe being stalked by the Black Death. This was Philadelphia, October 1918, and the city was under siege from a new variant of one of mankind's oldest specters: influenza.

"Between September 1918 and June 1919, 675,000 Americans died as a result of the 'Spanish flu' epidemic—more than the combined combat deaths of U.S. forces in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Conservative estimates place the worldwide death toll at 30 million to 40 million. ... Many assume, wrongly, that the flu had originated in Spain, where 8 million fell ill during a wave of relatively mild flu that had swept the globe in the spring of 1918. Because Spain was neutral and its press uncensored during the war, it was one of the few places where news about the epidemic was being reported. ...

"Flu victims were wracked by fevers often spiking higher than 104 degrees and body aches so severe that the slightest touch was torture. Cyanosis was perhaps the most terrifying hallmark of the pneumonia that often accompanied this flu. A lack of oxygen in the blood turned one's skin bluish-black—leading to speculation that the Black Death had again come calling. ...

"There were those who tried to quell the panic. An October 6 editorial in the [Philadelphia] Inquirer advised: 'Live a clean life. Do not even discuss influenza. ... Worry is useless. Talk of cheerful things instead of disease.' ... The tragedy played out with varying degrees of severity across the country. The city of San Francisco, where the flu hit hardest in late October, mandated that gauze masks be worn in public at all times. The mandate was widely followed, though in reality, masks did little to prevent the spread of flu. ... The epidemic was a crushing blow to [the credibility of] medical science, which had only recently come to be seen as a professional discipline. ...

"And then, it was over. ... 'In light of our knowledge of influenza and the way it works', explains [Los Angeles epidemiologist] Dr. Shirley Fannin, 'we do understand that it probably ran out of fuel. It ran out of people that were susceptible.' ... William Maxwell, writer and long- time editor at The New Yorker, was a ten-year-old in Lincoln, Illinois when the flu struck his family, killing his mother. 'I realized for the first time, and forever, that we were not safe.  We were not beyond harm', he remembered eight decades later. 'From that time on, there was a sadness, which had not existed before, a deep down sadness that never quite went away. ... Terrible things could happen—to anybody.' "


Christine M. Kreiser


1918 Spanish Influenza Outbreak: 'The Enemy Within'


American History


December 2006


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