The Spanish Flu outbreak of 2018
The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is generally regarded as being one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in history. Statistics vary, but the sources that I have consulted generally agree that the flu infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide – about one-third of the planet’s population – and killed anywhere from 20 to 50 million people, including about 675,000 Americans. The flu came towards the end of World War I, and killed many more people than the war did. Although it is not known where the 1918 flu actually originated, it was called the Spanish flu because Spain was hit hard by the disease and was not subject to wartime news blackouts, as other European countries were.
I find the statistics staggering. Just looking at the 675,000 estimated Americans who died: Given that the estimated population of the United States in July 2017 was 103,268,000, this would be equivalent to a disease killing 2,117,175 Americans this year. (This is my calculation based on the U.S Census population estimate of 325,719,178 as of July 2017; you are welcome to check it!) I have wondered how Americans today would react to this. To me it’s an unbelievable.
The first wave of the 1918 pandemic started in the spring and was generally mild, with typical flu symptoms (chills, fever, fatigue) that patients recovered from within a few days. The death rate was no higher than a typical flu outbreak. (In the U.S., the spring outbreak started with troops in Fort Riley, Kansas.) However, a second, more highly contagious wave came in the fall. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, which included their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid. People of all ages and economic status were affected. Young, healthy adults who would ordinarily have been able to fight the disease off were dying – in fact, at a higher rate than the elderly or the very young, who are usually the most susceptible. The flu wiped out entire families and affected every level of society, in every geographic area.
The pandemic came to an end in the summer of 1919. (It is generally thought that those who had not already died at that point had developed immunity.) By then, just about everyone in the world had been affected in one way or another by the outbreak. Most people knew someone who had died, if there had not been a death in their own family. Because of worker’s illness, basic social services like mail delivery and garbage pickup were disrupted, and businesses shut down or reduced hours. Schools shut down. Quarantines went into effect. Funeral parlors had more bodies than they could handle. In some places, there were not enough gravediggers. Parks and city streets were empty. People were afraid to go to out because they might catch the flu. Can you imagine how this must have affected every aspect of people’s lives? Should you go to work, so I can earn money to feed my family? Or should you stay home and not risk getting sick – but not get paid either? If you go food shopping, will you catch the flu from someone in the store? If you help a sick neighbor, will your good deed kill you or your children? Which of the many precautions that were around at the time were effective, and which weren’t? No one could really be sure. It was a very frightening time.
There are many excellent sources available about the Spanish flu. I have listed the materials that I looked at here. I particularly recommend the documentary “American Experience: Influenza 1918”, produced by PBS, which is available as a DVD and also on the library’s Overdrive database.
Would Americans be able to handle this kind of crisis today? To me it’s not just a question of health care. What would our emotional response be? Would we dissolve in panic? We no longer accept death as an everyday part of life, and much more used to having quicker solutions to crises. Let’s hope that we never have to find out how we would deal with a pandemic like this. Wendy Newell
U S Census historical population data, https://www.census.gov/population/estimates/nation/popclockest.txt.
“American Experience. Influenza, 1918 [electronic resource]” / a Robert Kenner Films production for American Experience; produced by Robert Kenner; written by Ken Chowder. [Arlington, Va.] : PBS, . (Note: This is the electronic version available on Overdrive. The program is also available as a DVD.)
Barry, John M. “The Great Influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history.” New York: Viking, 2004.
Getz, David. “Purple Death: the mysterious flu of 1918.” Illustrations by Peter McCarty. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000. (This is in the juvenile nonfiction section of our library and is a good basic book.)
Kolata, Gina. “Flu: the story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and the search for the virus that caused it.” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
Marrin, Arthur. “Very, very, very dreadful: the influenza pandemic of 1918.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, .