The deadly flu of 1918
Stories from the Buckboard
New Mexico, Texas and all of the lower 48 states are now suffering a flu epidemic. It is a dominant news story for 2018 which bears the unfortunate distinction of being the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what became known as Spanish Influenza.
In the early months of 1918 the United States was a place filled with hope and optimism. The economy was booming, the country was at peace and the field of medicine had just made major breakthroughs creating vaccines for diseases such as small pox and diphtheria. All of that changed in a single day.
During the winter of 1917, at Fort Riley, Kan., a project to burn massive amounts of dried cow manure was conducted. Blooms of smoke covered the area which was then hit but a significant dust storm. The fort was covered with a heavy dirty dark cloud for the entire night.
The next morning soldiers showed up at the infirmary complaining of fever, muscle aches, coughing, abdominal distress and a total lack of energy. A line of soldiers filled the hospital. An alarming number of the soldiers were dead within 12 hours.
Of the 500 soldiers who reported sick 40 died and then the illness disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. It seemed like an isolated incident of no serious consequence. It wasn’t. The soldiers who survived were about to take a deadly virus to the entire world. Before it was over, the disease would kill more American soldiers and citizens than were killed in all of the wars of the 20th Century.
In 1918 the U.S. entered World War I. The Americas soldiers, who were now immune to the disease, carried it with them and within weeks the virus had spread around the world, from China, Africa, South America to the Northern Alaska. It is reported that more than 550,000 Americans and 30 million people worldwide died.
Influenza is a viral airborne repertory disease, meaning disease of the lungs. It is transmitted in the water molecules exhaled most dangerously through coughing. When the soldiers were sent to war they took the virus to places where it was most likely to thrive. If one person with the virus were to be put onto a troop transport ship or into a filthy trench in World War I, the virus would thrive and likely inflect everyone.
During the final buildup of American soldiers, President Woodrow Wilson was advised that sending American troops on transport ships was not recommended because of the probable spread of the disease. He ignored the advice given to him and 70 percent of the troops send on those final ships died in transient. After the war the surviving soldiers came home and things became exponentially worse.
The country was ill prepared to deal with this influenza partially because it broke all of the existing laws. The flu is usually a threat to the elderly, children and pregnant mothers. The Spanish flu targeted the young and healthy. What happened to the Native Americans of New Mexico is a mirror image of what happened around the world.
In Pueblo the chapel bells would ring when someone died. When the plague hit residents said the church bells “rang day and night.” To complicate things adults turned out for the funeral of every tribe member and were then exposed to the disease. When doctors from Albuquerque came to the village they were shocked to find the only people alive were over the age of 65 or below the age of three. This same situation was repeated around the world. Ninety percent of the people killed by the plague were under the age of 65 and the only people left were the ones most unlikely to be able to provide for themselves.
It is hard not to feel sorry for the scientists of the day. They tried to find vaccines for the disease but they did not know what a virus was. They could see bacteria with their table microscopes but a virus can only be seen by an electron microscope which was two generations away from being invented. Therefore, they developed vaccines against bacteria they found in samples and dispensed them across the country.
During this time, anyone who wanted a job could get one as either a casket maker or a grave digger. Funeral directors had to hire armed men to guard their caskets during the night from theft. Another booming industry evolved by what are known as “snake oil salesmen.” They sold their remedies to a society in absolutely desperation for any kind of cure. One of the best sellers was a combination of a drop of kerosene, honey and grain alcohol.
Local government officials did whatever they could to stop the spread of the disease. In big cities policemen and even professional baseball players were required to wear cotton masks. They didn’t work. A critic said “using a cotton mask to stop this disease is like using a chicken wire fence to stop a sand storm.”
In rural areas across the country the government created the office of “Health Agent.” It was a voluntary position and most of those who took the position had no previous experience in medicine. One of the few powers they had was to quarantine people with the disease in their homes. In a small town in Utah the health agent put his entire village under quarantine posting signs telling strangers not to stop. The quarantine was working except for one thing. The mailman, the only person allowed to enter, brought the disease to the town and it killed most of the population.
The positive result of this action was that it led to the development of county health departments across the country. Also, after the flu ran its course there were thousands of homeless orphans which lead to the development of orphanages, many of which are still in existence. Such was the world of 1918. Now, in 2018 we are again facing yet another flu outbreak. Flu season in the U.S. typically runs from late fall to early spring.
Follow the News-Sun for breaking coverage of the local flu outbreak, available resources and advice.
Buck Vandermeer is a freelance writer for the Hobbs News-Sun.