I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
In 1918 children would skip rope to the rhyme (Crawford)
How many times have you had the "flu" in your life? Ten times? Twenty times? Never?. You know the routine, every bone in your body aches, your head feels like it's going to explode and you are coughing up green globs that, if left to their own devices, would skitter across the floor and hide under your couch. Combine this with the possibility of a toilet duck-taped to your butt, and a fever that might spike as high as 104 degrees, followed by a stuffy nose or a sore throat. A good dose can knock you on your ass for up to a week. Tough stuff!
According to an Sept. 2006, article, "Flu Facts," by Larissa Hirsch, MD in www.Kidshealth.org, on what to do if you get the flu. It is suggested, "The best way to take care of yourself is to rest in bed and drink lots of liquids." Ms. Hirsch goes on to say, "you probably don't need to contact your doctor unless you develop complications or you have a medical condition." Yes, of course, geezers like me and sick people are more at risk for serious complications. However, in the grand scale of life, to most people, today's flu is more an inconvenience than a serious threat.
So, why am I blithering on about a basic non event? Well, a couple of days ago, in the midst of a meaningless conversation with a poet friend of mine, I heard, for the first time, the words, 1918 and influenza, juxtaposed, side by side. It was the start of a story, a very, very scary story, I had never heard before.
In the spring of 1918, the world was about to experience it's first major flu outbreak. First known as the "Spanish Flu" because it was widely reported to have killed as many as 8 million Spaniards in May 1918 alone. Today, reserchers believe that the flu originated in the United States. Estimates of the global pandemic death toll range from as low as 20 million to a high of 100 million.
Almost everyone was caught up in the effects of this strain of the influenza virus. It quickly spread by simply following the path of it's human hosts, like rats on a ship, it followed the trade routes and shipping lanes. Quickly sweeping through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific and India, it was relentless in it's unbridled destruction. At home, even President Woodrow Wilson had a dose of the flu in 1919 while negotiating the the crucial treaty of Versailles to end the World War.
In the United States the few that were lucky enough to have "copped a pass" on the sickness had to deal with a whole new set of laws enacted to restrain the spread of the disease. In the report, "The Influenza Pandemic of 1918", (www.virus.stanford.edu,) it was noted, "The public health departments distributed masks to be worn in public. Stores could not hold sales, funerals were limited to 15 minutes. Some towns required a signed certificate to enter and railroads would not accept passengers without them."
In addition, the fall of 1918 was a period of the Great War "winding down and peace was on the horizon." Troops from many countries were on the move toward home and family. In what should have been a time of joy and rejoining of family, was instead met with a rebirth of the epidemic. As noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association final edition in 1918:
"The year 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one half-years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all--infectious disease." (12/28/1918) Many scholars feel that the virus played a huge role in ending the Great war, as soldiers on both sides were too sick to fight and the flu was killing more of them than any weapons could.
Studies have shown that the effects of this epidemic was so "over the top" in it's severity that the actual average life span in the US was REDUCED by 10 years. It was an equal opportunity disease, killing many in it's path at an incredibly rapid pace. Although most virus infected people recovered in a week following bed rest, many were known to develop the flu and die within hours. Life's daily infrastructure began to collapse. "Besides the lack of health care workers and medical supplies, there was a shortage of coffins, morticians and gravediggers. The conditions in 1918 were not far removed from the Black Death in the era of the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages."
Just like a good ending of a George Romero film, mankind survived to fight another day. A recent scientific study of the "1918 Killer Flu", published in Science, states that, "The virus jumped from birds to humans... The breakthrough should help doctors identify which future bird viruses pose a threat to man at an earlier stage... But the National Institute for Medical Research team warns viruses cannot be stopped from crossing between species." Lead researcher, Sir John Skehel, said "the findings would enable scientists to track and monitor the changes in flu viruses, but the research would not have an impact on the Far East chicken flu known as H5."
I thought I was pretty well rounded in my education but I never heard this story. What a maroon!
www.newsvote.bbc.co.uk "1918 killer flu secrets revealed", author unknown
www.npe.org "1918 Killer Flu Reconstructed", by Richard Knox
www.stanford.edu "The Influenza Pandemic of 1918", by author unknown
www.kidshealth.org "TeensHealth", author unknown
One Billion Infected-Half the World's Population
I had a little bird,
Copyright © 2010 Steven Lane