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“The 1918 Spanish Flu Outbreak”

Rev. David K. Wood, Ph.D.


Last Sunday, CNN televised a special one-hour report entitled “Pandemic,” but it was not on the spread of the coronavirus outbreak currently spreading throughout much of the globe but on the much deadlier “Spanish Flu” eruption of 1918/19.  Although today we’ve determined how the origin of that plague began in birds and then crossed over to human beings, a century ago, we had no knowledge of how it began or might even end since there were no vaccines or antibiotics developed yet.  All efforts to control it were limited to “non-medical” measures such as isolating oneself while quarantining others, promoting the importance of good personal hygiene and the use of disinfectants, wearing facial masks (although they were made of gauze and essentially useless) and limiting public gatherings which like today, many persons remained deaf to.

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected by it leading to at least 50 million deaths worldwide.  Here in the U.S., it is estimated that upwards of 675,000 persons succumbed from it.  However, when that figure is prorated to the population of America at that time (which was around 100 million, less than a third of our CURRENT total), then the number of deaths would have well exceeded a million and a half persons in today’s terms.  Mortality was especially high in those younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older.  The high mortality among healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.  The disease was so deadly that entire families were wiped out by it.  Some years ago, an elderly church member shared how in 1918, her older brother and sister died within hours of each other from that flu.  She said they were both laid out in the living room of their home while family members and friends came to their house to pay their respects because there was no room left at any of the funeral homes which were already overfull with dead bodies.

The documentary explained how traumatic death from it was.  What began with a headache and sore throat progressed to a fever and eventually bacterial pneumonia as the flu attacked the lungs, much like its modern counterpart does.  Its victims turned purple and black due to the lack of oxygen in their system, eventually leaving them to suffocate to death.  The doctors and nurses could only watch as they slowly died since they had no remedy to offer them.  As we are currently witnessing, the second wave of the disease was in fact much worse than the first.  Although there were no federal agencies back then to help formulate and then organize a centralized response to it (such as we have today with the National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control), the public was warned about avoiding mass crowds as they could easily turn into spreader events which could multiply the number of cases exponentially.  However, ALSO like today, many such warnings often went unheeded.  With America embroiled in a World War, bond rallies continued to be held around the country to help raise money for it.  In late September of 1918, there was a large rally featuring a liberty loans parade through downtown Philadelphia to promote war bonds.  Though the organizers were strongly advised against holding such an event, they went through with it anyway with the result that it led to more than 12,000 deaths. 

The war significantly contributed to the rapid spread of the disease, greatly depleting the military forces on both sides.  Malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals, and poor hygiene all exacerbated the superinfection.  Following the Armistice, many returning servicemen unknowingly brought the disease home with them, further contributing to its spread.  It would subside for a brief period of time, lulling people into a false sense of security and leading them to lower their defenses, but then there would soon come a second, a third and even a fourth wave.  In the United States alone, 292,000 deaths were reported between September and December compared to 26,000 during the same time period the year before.  It became so virulent that people were seen collapsing and dying right in the middle of the street.  It wasn’t until 1920 that the pandemic finally began to permanently subside. 

Certain parallels can be drawn between the “Spanish flu” of 102 years ago and the coronavirus of today, and many of the mistakes made a century ago have been repeated at the current time.  Today, as then, crowds still came together in spite of the many warnings, creating opportunities for spreader events to arise; cities, which had shut down early, re-opened much too soon allowing the flu to return in greater force than before; and for various reasons, many in both the government and the public chose to ignore much of the advice of the scientists and health professionals, never seriously taking their warnings to heart.  They underestimated the lethalness of this disease, convinced that the flu might possibly strike the other guy but they were magically immune from it.  Many refused to wear masks and without realizing it became spreaders themselves, further endangering, not just their own lives but the lives of their families and communities. 

At the conclusion of this absorbing documentary, the question was asked what, if anything, we had learned from it?  What was the most important lesson to come from this global health disaster?  The answer was clear: INSTEAD OF IGNORING OR MISLEADING THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE EXTENT AND LETHALITY OF THE DISEASE, THEY SHOULD HAVE FACED UP TO IT FORTHRIGHTLY AND TOLD THE TRUTH ABOUT IT!  Although it is hard to believe, never once throughout his entire presidency did Woodrow Wilson ever mention the pandemic- NOT ONCE!  He ignored it, pretending it was a minor inconvenience while a matter of GREATER significance- a World War, continued to rage on.  Thus, with two great emergencies going on at the same time, he chose to place his full attention on the war effort, reasoning–as our current President has admitted himself–that it would only panic the public and add to their anxiety.  He felt it was more important for factories to remain open and operating both day and night because uniforms and guns, tanks and planes had to be made.  Wilson also continued to hold bond rallies around the country because funds were needed to help pay for the war effort which in turn became major spreader events.  Thus, anything that could distract from any of these goals were either ignored or denied- it was the WAR that was utmost in his mind, in the thoughts of the public, and in the nation’s interest. 

Unfortunately, the result of such decisions was that more lives were lost due to the PANDEMIC than the total number of persons killed—on BOTH sides–from history’s FIRST WORLD WAR!  In fact, it received the name the “Spanish flu,” not because it originated there.  In the interests of maintaining morale for the war, our government and the local press deliberately conspired to minimize its influence.  However, when other newspapers reported on the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, the false impression was created that Spain was especially hard hit by it, thus giving rise to the name “Spanish” flu.  The irony here is that when the war finally ended and President Wilson sailed to France to help hammer out the terms of peace, he came down with the flu himself and became so debilitated by it, that he was never again the same- either mentally OR physically.