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Learn About the Spanish Influenza of 1918

 *cough* *sniff* *cough* *moan* Have you been hit with the flu this season? Has anyone you know had to stay home for a week with a fever, chills, and aching body?

Sick soldiers laid in cots at Camp Funston

It’s been a pretty intense flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 60 children have died flu-related deaths this season, and flu levels are as high this year as they were during the 2009 HINI flu pandemic.

But the numbers for this year pale in comparison to the numbers the world saw during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic.

“I had a little bird.
It’s name was Enza.
I opened up the window,
And In-flu-enza.” 

This was a rhyme sung by schoolchildren who were playing on schoolyards as the flu swept the globe in a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed the deadly virus to reach lots of people, many of whom were living in close conditions ripe for the spread of disease. Actually, schoolchildren were probably not singing this on schoolyards, since most of their classmates and teachers were probably so sick that school was canceled.

The year the Spanish flu enveloped the world’s population in overwhelming proportions was also the year World War I came to an end. Troops were traveling all around the world, and as they did, they exchanged germs. Plus, the war was a distraction—not many people wanted to consider the possibility of an enemy greater than the ones they were fighting, and no one had much time or energy to spare tracking reports of flu.

A Spanish flu camp hospital

By the time the pandemic had run its course, the flu had infected more than 500 million people around the world and killed 50 to 100 million, and 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. The flu killed more people than died in World War I, and many of those people were young men and women, not the children and elderly who are the usual victims of this disease.

While any death from flu is tragic and people are right to take extra precautions this year, such as washing hands, staying home at any sign of sickness, and getting the flu vaccine as doctors recommend, it can be interesting to look back at deadlier outbreaks and realize how far we've come in our efforts to eradicate those diseases that have stalked us throughout the millenia. 

Epidemics and Pandemics book coverYou can read all about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 in the new book by Judy Dodge Cummings, Epidemics and Pandemics: Real Tales of Deadly Disease. Here’s a sample to whet your appetite!

 Deadly Traveler: The Spanish Flu

In 1918, a man named Loring Miner doctored the hardworking, hearty people of Haskell County, Kansas. In this flat, treeless land, farmers cultivated wheat and tended livestock. 

Miner rode hundreds of miles to make house calls. His patients trusted him, even though he drank too much. But alcohol wasn’t muddling Miner’s mind in the winter of 1918, when he saw a troubling pattern. 

Patients were sick with violent headaches, body pains, high fevers, and dry coughing. Miner diagnosed influenza, but this flu was different from the typical strains. It moved from person to person with lightning speed and it killed. However, this flu didn’t claim the usual victims—the very young and the very old.

The people dying were young adults in the prime of life.

In 1918, doctors were not required to report the flu to authorities. No state or public health agencies kept track of outbreaks. But Miner was so worried about this new flu that he contacted public health officials. His warning about “influenza of severe type” was published in March in a journal distributed by the U.S. Public Health Service. No one paid much attention. 

Spanish flu victims at Walter Reed hospital

Then, the illness abruptly disappeared. In a different time, the story might have ended right there. Not many people lived in Haskell County. H1N1 could have simply died out. But in 1918, American men from every state were enlisting in the army to join the fighting of World War I. 

Camp Funston, Kansas, housed and trained 56,000 Army recruits. That winter, some soldiers from Funston received leave to visit their families in Haskell County. These men returned to camp the last week of February. On March 4, a soldier at Funston came down with the flu. 

Within three weeks, 1,100 soldiers were in the fort hospital and thousands more lay sick in their cots. Thirty-eight men died. Still, authorities were not alarmed.

Every week, soldiers from Camp Funston were sent to other military bases and to the front lines of Europe. World War I was fought in mazes of trenches that zigzagged across Western Europe. Soldiers slept, ate, fought, and died in these ditches. The area called no-man’s-land stretched between the enemy trenches and could be as wide as a football field or as narrow as 20 feet.

The soldiers from Camp Funston went to Europe armed with machine guns—and influenza—and began to kill.

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