By Jeanette Foresta
Originally written, October 21, 2003
1918 Spanish Flu
The flu, 100 years ago. Nobody knows just where it started, but when it came it affected everyone. It swept through the towns and villages of the United States and Europe and infected everyone. It slunk through the alleys of the Middle East and India and it affected everyone.
For the great plague of Spanish influenza that came in the winter of 1918 was not just an epidemic but a pandemic, literally a worldwide wave of misery. It ranked with the great plague of Justinian, and the Black Death of the Middle Ages as one of the most devastating onslaught of disease ever recorded.
No man has been able to count the number of dead that the flu left in its wake. Some put the figure at 20 million some at 25 million but no one knows for sure but the number of sick was estimated between 200 to 700 million and that is only a guess.
The pandemic started mildly enough. It seemed to be a holdover from the slight outbreak of flu and bronchitis that had occurred in 1915 and 1916. Early in 1918, the United States experienced an epidemic of three-day fever and sniffles. The illness was then carried to France aboard the troop ships that were transporting doughboys to the battlefields of WWI. From there, the flu, still in its mild form, spread across Europe and the Middle East.
During the summer, the flu seemed to subside. But, as autumn came on, the death rate suddenly soared in Paris. Then in September, soldiers crowded together in the camps on both sides of the Atlantic began to die like flies.
The great holocaust had begun and it covered the earth within a month.
The mild aching fever that marked the early flu had turned into violent pneumonia. Victims became blue or purple, and they died within three days of catching the disease. Surgeons performing autopsies found lungs damaged to a far greater extent than in normal cases of pneumonia.
In the US and the armed forces, public health services were mobilized to check the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, so little was known about the flu that doctors were unable to cure the illness outright. One of the few preventive measures available was a gauze mask that covered the nose and mouth.
Officials tried their best to detect flu cases early and isolate the victims. Public meetings were banned and schools were closed. Flu cases were particularly prevalent among doctors and nurses, the very persons the public looked to for help. Still, everywhere, untrained workers rose up to take their places.
However, the plague went on. Victims died unattended and bodies went unburied. In Philadelphia, steam shovels were used to dig common graves and in New York, street cleaners were used as gravediggers.
Then gradually, the disease subsided in the U.S. and throughout the world. It flourished briefly in 1919, but the worst was over.
All of the pictures were found during a renovation of my house. The Story was in a newspaper from 1948. It was used as insulation by a former owner.