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The Deadliest Four Months in Human History

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The deadliest period in human history. When do you suppose this might have been? The Second World War? Nope. The Black Plague? Not even close.

No, the deadliest period in human history is one you're not likely to see mentioned in your high school history books: the 1918 flu pandemic. The months of September through December of 1918 comprised the period of the highest intensity of a disease that spread throughout the world over the course of the year. First appearing in the spring as a fairly "normal" influenza remarkable in its virulence if not its mortality, it returned in September, reborn in a truly lethal incarnation, and unleashed itself on the world as if it were Nature's own vengeance.

The most conservative estimates claim that 20 million people died in the event, and recent studies suggest the death toll may have been between 50 to 100 million. If we accept even the most conservative estimate, this pandemic took the lives of nearly five million people each month, a mortality rate that outpaces even the darkest days of the Second World War. The global population at the time was around 1.8 billion, meaning between 1 to 5 percent of the population died from influenza in that year.

Perhaps the horror can be best illustrated by our national life expectancy at the time: in 1917, our life expectancy was 50.9 years; by 1918, it had dropped to 39.1.

It was influenza — only influenza — and the misguided patriotism of the era kept it out of the newspapers. Because of such "patriotic" censorship, most thought the influenza was a local or regional disaster and very few realized the disease was ravaging not only families and communities but the entire nation. In a time when men were jailed for simply suggesting that Germans "weren't such bad people," it was thought unpatriotic to publicly address these health concerns. It would have been considered "fear-mongering," so much so that not once did President Wilson mention it in public, even as it tore through every corner of the nation.

Many stories have surfaced of the horror of the pandemic: bodies stacked like cordwood; horse-carts picking up bodies off the streets; cities in which gatherings of people were banned; a mother too weak to move to even feed her newborn twins as the decomposing body of her husband lay in a bed across the room. A good friend of mine recently told me that three of his grandmother's brothers had died in the same week from the flu.

In India and Africa, some have estimated the pandemic claimed as much as five percent of the total population. In American Samoa, 20 percent of the population was lost. In some Inuit villages in Alaska, the pandemic killed over 70 percent of the population. One can only imagine what the death toll must have been like among the uncounted millions in China, then wracked by internal strife.

The 1918 pandemic was no ordinary influenza. Unlike almost all other forms, this was not only a grave threat to the old and frail and very young, but rather most deadly to those whose immune systems were the strongest. The incubation period lasted at least a week without major symptoms which led to its incredible worldwide virulence, and once symptoms began appearing the virus worked with tremendous speed. The first symptoms were what we would consider normal today, but would worsen to the point that the patient would begin to have difficulty breathing. Extremities would turn blue from lack of oxygen (a process called "cyanosis") to the point at which the victim's race became difficult to determine.

This cyanosis was caused by a reaction known as a "cytokine storm," in which the body's immune system kicks into overdrive and sends every available antibody to the lungs, often leading to the patient drowning in his or her own bodily fluids. These cytokine storms were ironically deadliest to those with the most powerful immune systems, as those who were "healthier" would have a stronger response to the virus and thus a more deadly cytokine storm. Today this occurrence is known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

I call myself an amateur historian, but this event illustrates how much I have left to learn. I had heard of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918, but it wasn't until less than ten years ago that I began to realize the scale of this event and why the World Health Organization has been so afraid of another pandemic. It is accepted in the virologist community that a pandemic similar to the 1918 outbreak will happen again, it's only a matter of time. It makes sense that every major health organization watches intently not only for clusters of deaths to SARS, but also mass avian epidemics — especially poultry — as all influenza originates from birds. All influenza is essentially "avian flu."

The modern threat is both lesser and greater, for while we have a far greater public awareness of health care and the media can spread news of an outbreak at light speed, the world's population is also far more mobile that ever before. Travel times have decreased from weeks or months for intercontinental travel to 24 hours at most, thus greatly magnifying the threat of any disease with a long incubation period.

I found some reassurance when my passport arrived a week ago. In a pamphlet of information included with my passport were three warnings: one concerning required actions for a lost or stolen passport, another warning about the necessity of being aware of potential terrorist threats, and the last giving strong recommendations in the event of a pandemic. At least in the modern era our government is prepared to lead and and use every tool at its disposal to minimize the danger, unlike ninety years ago when the acknowledgment of the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each week could be considered unpatriotic.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • Glenn,

    Of course you are correct about why various health organizations around the world are fearful and ever vigilent regarding the recurrence of a flu or other pandemic.

    While as individuals there is not a great deal we can do to protect ourselves beyond being mindful of personal sanitation measures, we should also remain aware of what in fact is happening in this regard around the world.

    There is a bit of irony in all this, though. If one watches the tube – the Discovery and History Channels and the myriad of other media, it seems that we must be fearful of any number of things that, as they say, is “just a matter of time” until they occur that will put large numbers of us in jeopardy and/or may destroy all life on the planet.

    The uncontrolled spread of various diseases including flu, SARS, ecoli, Legionaires, HIV and ebola among others are high on the list.

    Also, though is the possibility of comet, meteor and asteriod strikes, the effects of some super novas, sun storms. Right here on earth we must be concerned with the effects of climate change, the return of an ice age, the eruption of super volcanos, massive earthquakes, acid rain, el nino, la nina and out of control massive replication of Rob Schneider movies and/or alien invasions (rather the same thing, actually.)

    And I haven’t even mentioned the ongoing threat of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare.

    I feel that I should put together a comprehensive list of all these and any other perceived threats, and each morning getting on line and turning on the tube and the radio and check off each of them before I take a step out the door.

    I am not making lite of your article. Among all those things I noted above, it is likely that a pandemic may be the greatest threat we face. The manner in which flu and other virus strains mutate and jump from species to species makes the tracking and containing of them problematic at best.

    I just thought I’d throw in the other stuff to put all of it in some persective. Well, I’ve got to get back to work, and see if anyone has stolen my identity.

    B 🙂

  • Glenn,

    My mother used to tell me stories of the 1918 flu, and how people would drop like flies.

  • Imagine that event now with the relative ease and quickness of global travel, coupled with troubles the overuse of medication/medicine have done to us…

  • Imagine that event now with the relative ease and quickness of global travel, coupled with troubles the overuse of medication/medicine have done to us…

    Good! Now that you’ve imagined that, imagine if the Bird Flu (which is a close relative to the Spanish Flu that struck in 1918) starts to transmit to humans more easily…. The Bird Flu has spread to fowl all over the world. It makes you look at chickens in a whole new way.

    Sabbath meals can get awful scary….


  • Baronius

    Glenn – Very interesting article.

  • bliffle

    My father was in boot camp in, I believe, Georgia, at the time and his buddy got sick and was dying. Dad got him and his litter as close as he could to the hospital, considering that there were thousands of litters surrounding the hospital. When his buddy died, Dad went AWOL and lived off the land until the flu subsided. No one noticed he had been gone. There was no mention of this in the newspapers. Dad said that he thought 100,000 soldiers died of the flu.

  • When was that?

    Likewise, I find it kind of interesting that our illustrious proponents of the Iraqi was make no mention of the thousands who end up as maimed and physically disabled, not to mention the suicides.

    How may suicide have we had, if I may politely ask, during World War II?

    Come on, Nally and crowd. Answer this one!

  • Glenn Contrarian

    bliffle –

    You’re older than I thought – and your dad made a wise choice. That’s a really interesting anecdote, and considering the chaos in the nation and particularly the military at the time, totally believable.

  • bliffle

    The methodical coverup by the government and the press is what impressed me. Over the years when I’ve tried to find out more about the 1918 flu epidemic it’s been very frustrating.

    Apparently, the warrior class in 1918 was able to suppress the news in order to maintain interest in their then favorite war, “The War To End All Wars”, which, like so many others, seems to have failed.

  • So nothing really is new. We’re standing on a hundred-years-old tradition.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    To all –

    I knew this topic wouldn’t generate a lot of replies – it’s not something that invokes a lot of controversy. I just felt it was important to post it for the sake of spreading a little knowledge that we might all benefit from.

    My next topic, though…gonna shoot for that magical ‘500’ replies! I got 496 with my ‘socialism’ topic, but I think I can do better if I can tick off both the conservatives and my fellow liberals at the same time….

  • Why don’t you go with an anti-Marxist thesis, Glenn? I’m about to do it shortly, but it won’t generate that many responses – only some wrath from the few die-hards.

    What was your socialism topic?

  • It is now believed that the huge death toll from the Spanish flu was caused by “superinfection” with streptococcus pneumoniae. In other words, people infected with the flu also contracted a virulent strep infection, and it was the strep that killed them.

    It this is true, then the dire warnings of another pandemic may be exaggerated. Strep is treatable with antibiotics, which were not available in 1918, and there is also a vaccine that protects against a number of Strep pneumoniae strains. So this research puts a whole new twist on influenza pandemics. That’s a link to the Reuter’s article.