Deadly Flu

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, and we have a new national champion in college football.

I just knew it was going to be the Tigers. I’d have put money on it. In any event, although I’m still out on assignment, I am sending you historical essays on topics I’ve written about previously. Today’s concerns events that happened a century ago, but they might make you run out and get a flu shot, if you haven’t already.

On this date in 1919, readers of the New York Times awoke to the chilling news that the worldwide flu pandemic was reaping its grim harvest in a home for disabled children. Six children and a nun at a Catholic institution in Port Jefferson, N.Y., had died, the Times reported. Of the 350 children in the home, some 250 had contracted the illness, the paper added.

Much worse news lay ahead.

As it circled the globe, the “Spanish flu” hit port cities first, often striking densely crowded housing facilities — notably military barracks — the hardest. In New Orleans, the influenza epidemic peaked on Jan. 14, 1919, with 524 new cases reported on this date alone.

Although it earned its name because it spread so rapidly in Spain, the pandemic of 1918-1920 did not start in Europe. It may have originated in China, although one recent theory is that it began here, in the United States. What is clear is that somewhere along the line a genetic shift in the virus’s makeup took place, with catastrophic consequences for the human race.

It’s also evident that the spread of it around the globe was aided by world war. As horrifying a toll as World War I took on human life, the flu was even deadlier. Worldwide, an estimated 50 million people are thought to have died in the two-year pandemic. Some 650,000 of them were Americans, six times as many as died in the “Great War.”

The first wave of the onslaught was mild, and it was noticed in the spring of 1918. Noticed, but not acted upon, as federal authorities preoccupied with war were insufficiently attentive: American soldiers shipping out from Fort Riley, Kan., took the flu with them to Europe. By October, President Wilson was urged to halt troop deployments overseas, but the Army brass argued, not unreasonably, that the war was at a crucial crossroads and that U.S. reinforcements were needed to bring it to a conclusion.

Nonetheless, it was a fateful decision. The flu was being spread in the trenches, yes, and that was bad enough. But the strain that returned from Europe in the autumn and winter was a far more lethal version of the virus.

In August of 1918, at Chelsea Naval Hospital near Boston Harbor, a Navy physician named J.J. Keegan began seeing returning sailors with flu symptoms of frightening severity: The illness often killed its victims within days — and sometimes hours — of them becoming sick. Thousands of personnel were stricken, and Keegan worried that it would spread to the civilian population.

This fear was realized quickly. Three Bostonians died in September. A “Win the War for Freedom” parade in the city featuring some 1,000 sailors served as a veritable highway for the flu. As PBS noted in a riveting documentary on the pandemic, “This rousing display of patriotism did little to end the war and much to spread the deadly flu.”

Fearing the worst, Massachusetts Department of Health officials warned that “unless precautions are taken, the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city.”

By then, it was too late. The deadly strain was already racing up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and it would quickly migrate to every corner of this country. And, since viruses do not recognize human beings’ sovereign borders, the same grim pattern was repeating itself all over the globe.

“Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century,” John M. Barry, author of the most definitive book on the pandemic, wrote in 2004. “It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years.”

In the ensuing century, science learned a great deal about the spread of such contagions during those grim years. On this date in 1920, when a single official of Chicago State Hospital — a person who had had no contact with patients — contracted the flu, the entire facility was quarantined.

But the astonishing death toll of the pandemic was not primarily because poor medical practices were followed. It was because the strain of that virus, which was brought back from extinction in 2005 for study, was at least 100 times more lethal than typical flu viruses.

This should give us pause. Influenza pandemics have spread through the world three times since then (in 1957, 1968, and 2009) with nothing like the 1918 death rate. But if it happened before, it can happen again. Perhaps the best thing human beings have going for us is our collective memory.

“Having gone through it once, having seen how bad it could be, has made people in the public health and governmental sphere aware of how bad flu can be,” Dr. Nicole Bouvier, a New York City professor of infectious diseases, told the Chicago Tribune on the 100th anniversary of the pandemic’s start. “That may be the biggest lesson we have learned, to not underestimate how bad flu can be.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

%d bloggers like this: