Remembering the “Spanish Flu”

The current COVID-19 epidemic inevitably brings up comparisons to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918, which was a deadly global pandemic.

It was called the “Spanish Flu” even though it did not originate in Spain. The source remains a debate, but many point to a surge of flu activity in Kansas in early 1918 that spread to Fort Riley. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, “Troops being sent to Europe (to fight in World War I) carried the disease with them and soldiers and civilians alike quickly succumbed.”

The symptoms were just like the flu—weakness, body aches, sore throat, fever—but effects were rapid and more severe. James Casto, writing about the virus in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in 2009, reported, “The 1918 flu was unlike any other. People could be seemingly healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall. Others died more slowly, suffocating from the buildup of fluid in their lungs.”

The first wave of the virus came in the spring of 1918, followed by a more severe outbreak in the fall. Public schools, colleges and theaters closed, and many people stayed indoors. West Virginia University canceled its football season.

The phone company asked people to only make emergency calls because so many operators were out sick. Coal mines closed for a lack of workers.

Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed and, in many areas of West Virginia, there simply was no health care.

As Michael Meador reported in The West Virginia Encyclopedia, “There were severe shortages of doctors, nurses, medical supplies and caskets. Often doctors and nurses succumbed to the disease. Most victims were cared for at home as there were few hospitals.”

Casto reported that home remedies were common.  “Alcohol, onion plasters, raw onions and hot lemonade were recommended.  None of these treatments worked.”

Normally, a virus is a greater risk to the old and infirm, but the “Spanish Flu” attacked younger, healthier people. “The high mortality among healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “The properties that made it so devastating are not well understood.”

With no vaccine and no antibiotics, the disease spread rapidly around the world. The CDC estimates that about 500 million people, or about one third of the world’s population, was sickened by the virus and at least 50 million died from 1918 to 1919.

In this country, the death toll is estimated at 675,000. Overwhelmed health officials in West Virginia were not able to keep the most accurate records, but it’s believed that over 71,000 people were sickened and more than 2,800 died.  Meador reports that in 1918, “25 percent of all reported deaths in West Virginia were due to influenza and its complications.”

Notably, in the CDC’s account of the 1918 pandemic, it concludes “Plans, resources, products and improvements show that significant progress has been made since 1918… (however) gaps remain, and a severe pandemic could still be devastating to populations globally.”

“If a severe pandemic, such as occurred in 1918 happened today, it would still likely overwhelm health care infrastructure, both in the United States and across the world.  More needs to be done… to prepare for the next pandemic,” the CDC concluded in its report two years ago.

We are frequently warned about what might happen, so much so that we become dulled to the possibilities.  But sometimes terrible things do happen, and we wish then we would have paid attention to the dire predictions and prepared better.



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