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Almost forgotten, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed millions worldwide

Jeff Bobo • Jan 5, 2018 at 1:45 PM

Sometimes my mom and I play a game where we count up the number of times we would have died in our lifetimes if we'd been born 100 years earlier without the benefit of modern medicine.

It's very likely that both of us would have died in childbirth in 1869 because we both barely survived the 36 hour ordeal in 1969.

After that mom's got me beat on the death-count. She had an appendicitis in her 20s, she barely survived a misdiagnosed pancreatitis in her 30s, breast cancer which was detected early in her 40s, and a heart attack in her 60s. I’m sure I’m missing something, and she’ll call me when she reads this to remind me.

All I can match her with is one little old appendicitis at the age of 23. Of course, you only get to die once, and if that appendicitis had occurred in 1892 instead of 1992 I probably would have died young and left a beautiful corpse.

We’re not even taking into account common illnesses like measles and chicken pox, both of which I had as a baby, and both of which could kill you 100 years ago.

And then there’s the flu that killed as many as 100 million people, or 5 percent of the world population exactly 100 years ago.

It’s an almost forgotten time in history. I bet if you polled 100 recent high school graduates, you'd be lucky to find five who even heard of it.

The “Spanish Flu” was trending pretty heavy in 1918, however. Nearly everyone alive on Earth at the time was affected.

In all fairness to modern graduates, I don't think I'd heard much about the 1918 flu pandemic until I was out of college and working my first newspaper job in Kenosha, Wis.

I had always been fascinated by the Green Ridge Cemetery located in the middle of Kenosha, which was surrounded by a big rock wall and iron gates, and had a spooky ambiance. As a cub reporter in the early 1990s I decided to do a series of stories about the cemetery’s history and famous occupants.

I already knew there were a lot of well known inventors, industrial magnates and war heroes buried there. 

What I didn't expect to find was hundreds of grave stones dating back to 1918 and 1919. I'm talking about rows and rows and rows of graves for people who died during that two year period, which piqued my curiosity. I visited a few other old cemeteries, and it was the same thing.

In fact, if you visit any old cemetery, especially in more urban areas, you're going to fund huge sections of graves from 1918-19.

That’s because the 1918 Flu Pandemic was the deadliest plague in modern history.

It’s hard to believe that only 100 years ago an illness as common as the flu could kill so many people. 

I caught a nasty flu while I was in northern Illinois visiting my parents during Christmas. Coughing, congestion, light fever. It really put a damper on the festivities.

But, if that had happened 100 years ago I’d probably still be there, buried at Green Ridge Cemetery.

What worries me is that history tends to repeat itself. It’s disconcerting to hear about strains of flu virus evolving every year, and scientists aren't coming out with new vaccines fast enough to keep up.

On the news last week scientists were saying this year's flu vaccine was only 10 percent effective against this year's virus strain. Yet, they were saying that shouldn't stop you from being vaccinated, because 10 percent protection is better than zero percent protection.

Consider this. In 1918 the world population was nearly 2 billion. Today it's more than 7.53 billion. At 2018 population levels, the flu pandemic of 1918 would kill 375 million people. That's the entire population of the United States plus another 50 million people.

How'd it start?

Why the virus evolved into a killer is still a mystery, but some scientists believe it started in a major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France in the winter of 1917-18, during a time of war and pestilence. That’s why January of 1918 is listed as the official beginning of the pandemic.

But, there was also an outbreak in Ft. Riley, Kansas in March of 1918 after gale force winds kicked up while soldiers were burning tons of manure. It created a massive yellow dust haze that burned throats and sinuses. Two days later there were 100 cases of flu at the camp hospital, and a week later, 500.

How'd it spread?

That was during World War I. Crowded troop train and ships were massive Petri dishes for the flu virus. Although 48 soldiers at Ft. Riley died, the survivors still carried the virus, and brought it with them to Europe where soldiers on both sides of the conflict were infected. By the time soldiers from all over the world took it back home the virus had mutated into a killer.

In cities and towns across the globe the virus spread like wildfire. At the time in the U.S. factories were running 24/7 to meet wartime demands so it spread there. Thousands of people turned out at patriotic war bond rallies across the nation, and it spread there. Church, school, ballgames — anywhere people congregated you could catch the flu. Eventually all public gatherings were banned, and theaters and bars were shut down, but it was too late. 

What were the symptoms?

Unlike the common flu which takes the average person out of commission with a cold, cough, and light fever for a few days, this version caused raging fever and delirium. You coughed blood, your skin turned blue and then black, your lungs filled with fluid and you literally drowned. It worked fast. You could wake up well in the morning, and be dead in 12 hours.

Who suffered the most?

Usually the flu hits the weakest elements of our population hardest — the very young and the very old. The 1918 Pandemic was the opposite. It hit healthy young adults between the age of 21 and 40 the hardest. About 92% of deaths occurred in people under 65.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic by the numbers:

In October of 1918 alone the flu killed over 195,000 Americans, making it the deadliest month in U.S. history.

Worldwide the flu may have killed as many as 25 million people in its first 25 weeks. Older estimates say it killed 40–50 million people 1918-20, while current estimates say 50–100 million people were killed.

As a result of the pandemic the average life expectancy in the United States alone dropped by about 12 years.

In the United States the death toll reached 675,000, which was five times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in World War I.

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