1918: The Year the Flu Nearly Destroyed Humanity

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Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with H1N1 at a hospital ward at Camp Funston.
Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with H1N1 at a hospital ward at Camp Funston.

With a population that has expanded four-fold over the past century to 7.4 billion people, it’s hard to imagine that only one-hundred years ago world leaders were contemplating the unthinkable possibility of human extinction.

With a World War raging across the battlefields of Europe, humanity faced an even deadlier enemy inside their own homes in the year of 1918: a mysterious influenza pandemic now known as the H1N1 virus.

John M. Barry published a report concerning the flu’s origins in a National Institutes of Health report, stating, “Haskell County, Kansas, lay three hundred miles to the west of Funston. There the smell of manure meant civilization. People raised grains, poultry, cattle, and hogs. Sod-houses were so common that even one of the county’s few post offices was located in a dug-out sod home. In 1918 the population was just 1,720, spread over 578 square miles. But primitive and raw as life could be there, science had penetrated the county in the form of Dr. Loring Miner. Enamored of ancient Greece – he periodically reread the classics in Greek… His son was also a doctor, trained in fully scientific ways, serving in the Navy in Boston.

“In late January and early February 1918 Miner was suddenly faced with an epidemic of influenza, but an influenza unlike any he had ever seen before. Soon dozens of his patients – the strongest, the healthiest, the most robust people in the county – were being struck down as suddenly as if they had been shot. Then one patient progressed to pneumonia. Then another. And they began to die. The local paper Santa Fe Monitor, apparently worried about hurting morale in wartime, initially said little about the deaths but on inside pages in February reported, ‘Mrs. Eva Van Alstine is sick with pneumonia. Her little son Roy is now able to get up… Ralph Lindeman is still quite sick… Goldie Wolgehagen is working at the Beeman store during her sister Eva’s sickness… Homer Moody has been reported quite sick… Mertin, the young son of Ernest Elliot, is sick with pneumonia… Pete Hesser’s children are recovering nicely… Ralph McConnell has been quite sick this week (Santa Fe Monitor, February 14th, 1918).'”

On March 4, 1918, mess cook Private Albert Gitchell reported becoming sick from the virus while stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, a military training facility preparing American troops for involvement in World War I.

By noon on March 11, over 100 soldiers were in the hospital at the base from complications with the deadly flu.  The following day, health officials in Queens, New York, were treating cases of the mysterious virus.

With troops deploying from the military compound to locations around the world on a near daily basis and with the first widespread use of aircraft, the virus quickly spread throughout the globe in a matter of days — something the world’s doctors had previously never before seen.

With roughly a half-million virus particles being spread each time an infected person sneezed or coughed, the dreaded disease flourished in the close troop quarters of World War I, which hastened the pandemic, and probably both increased transmission and augmented mutation.

By August 1918 the virus had begun to show signs of intensifying, as a more virulent strain appeared simultaneously in Brest, France; in Freetown, Sierra Leone; and in Boston, Massachusetts. The virus also spread through Ireland, carried there by returning Irish soldiers. The Allies of World War I came to call the H1N1 virus, the Spanish flu, primarily because the pandemic received greater press attention after it moved from France to Spain in November 1918 — Spain was not involved in the war and had not imposed wartime censorship.

With a world population of 1.8 billion individuals, the deadly flu virus claimed the lives of an estimated 50-100 million people according to the National Academic Press, stating, “A contemporary estimate put the death toll at 21 million, a figure that persists in the media today, but understates the real number. Epidemiologists and scientists have revised that figure several times since then. Each and every revision has been upward. Frank Macfarlane Burnet, who won his Nobel Prize for immunology but who spent most of his life studying influenza, estimated the death toll as probably 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million. A 2002 epidemiologic study also estimates the deaths at between 50 and 100 million (Johnson and Mueller, 2002).”  By comparison, World War I (which drug on for 4 years and 3 months) claimed an estimated 16 million lives.

It is said that this flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century and its reach was worldwide: The disease killed in every corner of the globe. As many as 17 million died in India, about 5% of the population. In Japan, of the 23 million people who were infected, 390,000 died. In the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), 1.5 million were assumed to have died among 30 million inhabitants. In Tahiti 13% of the population died during only a month. Similarly, in Samoa 22% of the population of 38,000 died within two months.

In the U.S., about 28% of the population became infected, and 500,000 to 675,000 died. Native American tribes were particularly hard hit. In the Four Corners area alone, 3,293 deaths were registered among Native Americans. Entire village communities perished in Alaska.  The unusually severe disease killed up to 20% of those infected, as opposed to the usual flu epidemic mortality rate of 0.1%.

An unusual feature of this pandemic was that it mostly killed young adults. In 1918–1919, 99% of pandemic influenza deaths in the US occurred in people under 65, and nearly half in young adults 20 to 40 years old – a reality that still perplexes scientists, though there is a growing consensus that this may be due to the fact that older adults who had been exposed to a similar flu pandemic in 1889–1890, known as the Russian flu, may have established a resistance to the virus.

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