The Deadliest Pandemic in History

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.  Mark Twain

The world is a curious place.  Everyday we make history by doing the same thing we did yesterday.  We wake in the morning, we go to our jobs, try to make a little money, go home, spend time with loved ones, watch the same old headlines, and go to bed.  The next morning, we wake and to it again.  In the average lifespan we repeat this process 31,390 times, and in that span, we see nations wage war, see people suffer, and hope for change.  It’s as if the world were a movie where the setting and the characters adjust, but the plot always stays the same.

Today, our headlines are filled with covid-19, the coronavirus.  The virus has turned the world on its head.  Schools and businesses are closing, professional sporting leagues have suspended play, and many Americans have chosen to quarantine.  There are travel bans, the U.S. is in a state of emergency, store shelves are emptying, and a faction of the population is ready for an all-out panic.  It’s something the likes of most alive have never witnessed, something that didn’t happen yesterday; however, as history shows, this outbreak both is and isn’t all that different from those in the past.

The world has been shaken by sickness many times in history.  Since the beginning, humankind has had to grapple with disease – most notable the black death that swept Europe and Asia in the 14th century, killing more than 20 million people.  More recent however were the H1-N1 (swine flu) that killed over 12,000 in the U.S., SARS, and “Bird Flu” epidemics – however, they all pale in comparison to the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed an estimated 20-50 million people.

It was March of 1918, nearly a century ago today.  America was gearing up for war in Europe, a war so ghastly it was dubbed “the war to end all wars” – no one felt any nation would be willing to fight a war ever again with such deadly weaponry at hand.  All around the nation, young men were being herded into crowded army camps to train for the trenches.  One such camp was Camp Funston in Kansas.  Hordes of young recruits were sent to the camp during the worst winter on record.  Barracks swelled and troops were forced to sleep in tents under think blankets.

Nearby, in Haskell County KS, a little community was just getting over a mysterious sickness that seemed to only affect the farmers of the community.  It was a flu bug that was shockingly contagious and extremely deadly.  A local doctor was so terrified that he alerted the U.S. Public Health Service.  Being that the outbreak was in a small community, however, the USPHS chose to do nothing, feeling that in a small “backwater” community, the sickness would soon run out of people to infect and this run its course.

Meanwhile, back at Camp Funston, a company cook named Private Albert Gitchell reported to sick bay with flu like symptoms.  He was part of a batch of fresh recruits brought to the camp from Haskell County on February 28th.  Coughing and sneezing, the Haskell Kansas boys crowded into jam packed barracks and spread the disease.  By the end of the month of March, over 1,000 troops were sick with 38 dead.

The first wave of the flu in the United States came on rapidly but left just as fast.  It was March, the end of flu season.  In Europe, however, it took hold and mutated.  Fresh faced American soldiers, with watery eyes and runny noses, walked off the troop ships in France and spread the sickness throughout the country.

By May it had spread across Europe, killing 8,000,000 people in Spain alone where it earned the nickname “Spanish Flu”.  By June it spread through India and China, by July it was sprawling over Africa and South America, and by August it found its way back to the docks on America’s east coast – this time far deadlier than the version that had left so many months earlier.

The infected were suspect to severe nausea, aches, fever, and diarrhea.  Many developed black blotches on their skin and would even turn blue due to a lack of oxygen.  Once a patient turned blue, it was only a matter of hours, or minutes before they would die.  Some became infected only to die as little as 12 hours later, showing no symptoms until the very end.

Troops coming home on boats from Europe were sick, many dying.  Reports were of bodies being stacked like cordwood on the docks.  Masks were handed out, hand sanitation was urged, and large gatherings were banned.  Hospitals could scarcely keep up with the flu and swelled beyond capacity.

In Philadelphia, 200,000 people crammed together on city streets to watch a parade.  Three days later, every sick bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was full of sick and dying patients.  By the end of the week, 4,500 people were dead.  Officials closed the city, all businesses and public services ceased to operate, yet it was too late.  An estimated 12,000 people were killed in Philadelphia alone.

After the deadly second wave of Spanish Flu, the sickness abruptly stopped.  It peaked late in 1918 and diminished to almost nothing.  It simply ran out of victims.  The damage had been done, however, as 500,000,000 people, worldwide, had been infected with the flu, and up to 50,000,000 perished because of it.

Today, as it was in 1918, people are afraid of what tomorrow may bring.  Health officials have yet to get a firm handle on covid-19, there’s no vaccine, and symptoms can be so mild that a person does not know they have it while passing it along to others.  How the coronavirus will unfold is anybody’s guess.  We can hope that it goes to the wayside like so many others, or that a vaccine is developed to eradicate it.  History has proven time and time again that when it’s all over and the dust settles, life will go on.  For now, however, I guess we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed. – Brian Haines.

Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Haines:

    I read your article, “MORE TO THE STORY: Learn more about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1917-18″
    There may indeed be even more to the story and right there in Hutchinson, Minnesota.

    There was an interesting report that, if verified, may mean significant alleviation of suffering and maybe even unnecessary death. This report was in a contemporaneous periodical that I have in my possession, that asserts that in an article written by the editor of the Hutchinson Leader on December 13, 1918, on the authority of Dr. Fred Shepard, Hutchinson City’s Health Officer, there was a Seventh-day Adventist seminary that had a fascinating encounter with the Spanish Flu that was extraordinary.

    At a time when there is no adequate treatment for COVID-19 (as was the case of the H1N1 Influenza virus in 1918) perhaps this story, if verified may offer some hope to Americans as well as to people around the world and perhaps even point other physicians and medical researchers in a direction that may provide some palliation in this pandemic. After all, as you so aptly said in your closing paragraph:
    ” Today, as it was in 1918, people are afraid of what tomorrow may bring. Health officials have yet to get a firm handle on covid-19, there’s no vaccine, and symptoms can be so mild that a person does not know they have it while passing it along to others.”

    I am writing to you because you may have access to the means to verify the story and even help investigate its veracity by seeing if there were follow-up articles, rebuttals, or commentaries of any sort that may affect the interpretation of the report. If this story pans out as authentic, and if this approach to treatment turns out to be in any way helpful, I guess we can do more than just keep our fingers crossed 🙂

    Please contact me by email or by cell 240-472-5896.

    Thanks, and please stay at home and stay well.

    zcm

    Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, MD
    Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine,
    Loma Linda University School of Medicine

  2. Darrol Bussler says

    Appreciate the
    * time
    * thought
    * comprehensive view
    in this month’s key article.
    Much appreciated.

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