Walking down any given street in the year 1918 between the months of June and December, one would take notice of coffins lining the sidewalks. Nobody was on the streets, and dead bodies were stuffed into every available space. The Flu Epidemic of 1918 not only was the most devastating event of the twentieth century, but propelled the United States to search for a vaccine that has not yet been found, causing concern that the flu will strike again.
Influenza has been around almost as long as people have walked the earth. Its roots draw back as far as 412 B.C., when a man named Hippocrates wrote of an uncontrollable outbreak of a disease that closely resembles influenza. This pandemic devastated an entire Athenian army, and has since occurred approximately every one hundred years (Persico 30). However, in 1918, influenza was somewhat different. It became popularly known as the Spanish influenza. This is slightly a misnomer because although it became widely known in Spain during the spring of 1918, it had been noticed on British army bases in France in 1917 (Carter 18). This new virus became extremely deadly in a short amount of time. Nobody could form a good reason as to why it had appeared. Scientists hypothesized that it came from poison gases formed from exploding ammunition, decomposing bodies, and carbon dioxide from trenches, which fused together, forming a toxic vapor (Persico 81). Because it had swept upon the world so quickly, a cure was not available. The influenza of 1918 took people in a matter of days. A victim could be walking around feeling perfectly healthy one morning, be bedridden by nightfall, and have died before daybreak. Doctors were baffled, and gave vaccines that didnt work. When one doctor was asked what the vaccine contained of, he said the vaccines were just a soup made of blood and mucus of flu patients that had been filtered to get rid of large cells and debris (Kolata 23).
This particular epidemic of influenza was proven to have existed before the breakout in Spain. It had made three waves during a two-year period. Each new assault became more infectious. Over twenty thousand people died in New York City alone, and the only country not affected, Australia, possesses strict quarantine regulations (Is another influenza pandemic coming soon?, 1997). The epidemic passed through army bases and boats among other countries before spreading through the United States. In fact, before influenza struck, it was ranked tenth behind heart disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and cancer. On August 12, 1918, Mrs. Olsen became the first person to die of influenza, beginning the killing streak that would make influenza the number one killer (Persico 30). It spread like wildfire, with one person falling ill, followed by another, 107 by afternoon, 522 by the end of the week, and 1,127 suffering with 46 dead five weeks later.Nevertheless, these occurred before influenza was discovered, and pneumonia was blamed for deaths (Persico 28).
There have been about 20 million reported deaths due to the influenza of 1918. The doctors were too overwhelmed by the many cases they had to care for, which brought about many unreported cases, causing this minuscule number.One fateful day in October 759 people died in Philadelphia (Kolata 19-20).The epidemic spread so far so fast that public officials became frantic looking for ways to fend off the virus. Arrests were made for spitting and coughing, public meetings were prohibited, and a series of medical procedures were all attempts to prevent the virus from entering victims lungs (Persico 83).
This new influenza baffled researchers and doctors everywhere. Up to this point, all viral diseases has spread prominently throughout heavily populated areas and into the lungs of the very young, very old, or sickly. On the contrary, the Influenza of 1918 swept through the Midwest and preyed on the young and healthy. There was virtually nothing that could stop it, and at one point, over ten percent of Americas workforce was bedridden (Is AnotherSoon?, 1997).One newspaper ran an article stating what people could do to prevent acquiring influenza. Chew food carefully, avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, and tight gloves, and breathe as much fresh air as possible. Nothing worked (Persico 31). People walked through New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Tokyo with masks constructed of antiseptic white cotton over their mouths (Carter 19). Men were forced to line up before work each morning in order to get their throats sprayed with antiseptic in order to prevent the flu. While the war raged on, 2,700 men died in battle during a single week in October. That same week 21,000 Americans died of influenza in the United States (Persico 28). World War I took a total of 8.5 million lives during its entirety, but influenza eradicated more than 20 million. Nobody knows the true number, as many deaths were attributed to pneumonia, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and heart disease (Carter 19).
For decades doctors have been in search of what caused the great Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Even more have dedicated their research to finding a cure for the next outbreak. Soon after the flu made its mysterious disappearance, it was discovered that while influenza reigned over America, numerous hog breeders found their pigs deathly ill. Scientists then revealed a connection between the sickness of the hogs and that of humans. It then became known as hog flu (Persico 81). Statistics were calculated. An average influenza killed fewer than 0.001% of those sickened. The flu of 1918 took 2.5%, and if it came about today, more than 1.5 million Americans will die. This would be more than heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS, and Alzheimers disease all combined (Kolata 7). It swept across America in 120 days, and if it had not dispersed at the time it did, the entire human existence would have been wiped out in a matter of months. It has been proven that it easily could happen again. Two illnesses, from animal and human, had joined together to make a most deadly epidemic (Persico 85). The strands of influenza virus are held in the aquatic bird population, including gulls and ducks. Every 100 years it is transmitted to pigs, and then passed on to humans. The virus is still there, and it shows promise for returning again (Is AnotherSoon?, 1997). No other disease has mystified researchers as much as the influenza of 1918. Not only does it continue to lack a cure, it holds the record for its swiftness in taking over France, England, America, Russia, China, Japan, and India (Carter 19).
In spite of this, scientists are striving to find a cure for the incurable, and research is proving to be worth the work. One man, Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, researched dolphins as a living. A disease was being transmitted through the dolphin population, killing hundreds. Dr. Taubenberger helped to get RNA samples from the lungs of the dead animals, educating him on the processes of obtaining useable material out of dead tissue Kolata 202). Theoretically unconnected, in the autumn of 1918, a Private Vaughn complained of chills fever, headache, backache, and cough. This 21 year-old man died of influenza within a week (Sternberg, 1997). Recently the Defense Department has found his lungs, preserved perfectly in Washington for almost eighty years. It remains as the only useful sample of the deadly influenza virus left (Is AnotherSoon?, 1997). Upon his death, Private Vaughn was discovered to have about 1 cups of a clear fluid in his lungs. His left lung was covered with small blood blisters from the size of a pinhead to a dime or larger, and the air sacs were clogged with the same clear fluid (Kolata 29). This lung had suffered from massive bacterial pneumonia, although his right had not.Dr Taubenberger has broken down this tissue until only RNA remains (Sternberg, 1997).
Taubenberger is now avid in the study of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. He has found that the virus strand is made of eight pieces of RNA all fitted neatly in a protein coat. The tedious process of discovery has only allowed four of these strands to be looked at so far (Is AnotherSoon?, 1997). He has also compared five copies of these flu genes to nine other flu RNA fragments. It most closely resembles the swine flu. Luckily, these recent discoveries may help formulate a vaccine. This information will most likely lead to a suitable vaccination that will protect the human race (Sternberg, 1997).
The breakthroughs throughout the years all began with Professor Wilson Smith, Sir Christopher H. Andrews, and Sir P.P. Laidlaw in 1933. They were the first people to transmit the human influenza to other mammals, including ferrets (Kolata 287).They were followed almost two decades later by British researchers. These scientists discovered that the virus entered the lungs through the nasal passages in 1943 when the electron microscope was invented. They also saw the actual virus for the first time-it was so small that 30 million would fit on the head of a pin. They realized that the virus held an amazing ability to change and rearrange its structure to survive and form new strains (Persico 85).Johan V. Hultin revealed in 1949 that influenza, as all other viruses, must enter the body in order to survive and replicate (Kolata 118). Kennedy Shortridge then suggested, which was proved years later, that the 1918 virus originated from birds and mutated over a period of fifty years. Over time it eventually infects the human population. It began again in 1976 in the pig population. However it was maintained under control and few, if any deaths were contributed to the swine flu (Kolata 296).
The most recent occurrence happened in the summer of 1997. The infection, called H5N1, has always been carried in Hong Kong by aquatic birds, yet has not been known to directly infect a human. Unfortunately a three year-old boy caught the virus and died, without infecting anyone else. This caused for concern of an upcoming epidemic (Kolata 220). At this time there is a committee focusing on a reaction in case of an epidemic as serious as the one in 1918. They are debating issues such as whether or not to allow businesses and schools to open, how to provide care for house-bound victims, and whether masks should be worn to prevent transmission of bacteria, which may cause secondary infections. Worry is developing because there is no current plan to handle something this severe (Is AnotherSoon?, 1997)
The 1918 Flu Epidemic not only was a traumatic experience for people suffering of the disease, but for everybody. Family members, friends, foes, and acquaintances all were prime choices for the flu to attack. It did not discriminate between race, religion, or sex. Everybody was affected and nobody was spared. Millions died as a result of a germ floating through the air and into the lungs of innocent people, and it is coming back.Scientists are working to find a cure, and are on the verge of a breakthrough, however they hope it will come in time. The world is not ready for another epidemic with the death rates of 1918. If it occurs before a vaccine is produced, human population will cease to exist.
Carter, Joseph. 1918 Year of Crisis, Year of Change. Toronto: Prentice Hall of Canada, Ltd. 1968.
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Persico, Joseph E. American Heritage. Vol XXVII Dec. 1975-Oct. 1975. New York, NY: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. 1975.
Sternberg, S. A Doughboys Lungs Yield 1918 Flu Virus. Science News Online. 22 March 1997: Science Service. 4 Jan. 2001.