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Sunday, March 25, 2012

"La Grippe": The Forgotten Predator

It came out of nowhere. Later it was thought to have originated in China in a rare genetic mutation of the common influenza virus. The name given to it was the “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” as it allegedly killed 8 million people in Spain in 1918. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 became the most devastating epidemic in recorded history. More people died of the Spanish Flu in 12 months than died due to the Black Death Bubonic Plague in four years (1347-1351).
In 1918 the Great War (WWI) was winding down. Americans saw peace on the horizon. They were not prepared for what was about to happen. Small outbreaks of the Flu erupted here and there but they seemed benign, at first. It was strange that those infected most were between the ages of 20 and 40. Flu usually struck the very old and very young.
Before long people were struck down on their way to work, on the street, and died rapid deaths. Many died in just hours, most within only a few days. Physicians reported that their patients displayed common Flu like symptoms at first but that it rapidly developed into “the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen.” The medical profession was powerless to stop it. Some believed the epidemic was a form of biological weapon developed by the Germans as a last stand.
It covered the world, spread by human carriers along travel and trade routes. Returning soldiers then brought a second wave of death with them back to America in September. There were 200,000 deaths reported the following month. It was a complete public health disaster. Medical students were released early from school to be put into the field to try to contain the pandemic.
It was almost impossible to escape from the illness. President Woodrow Wilson suffered through it in early 1919. Public Health departments distributed masks to be worn in public, stores were prohibited from having sales, and funerals were limited to 15 minutes. Bodies piled up. There was a serious lack of medical personnel, medical supplies, and coffins.
Surprisingly, the Spanish Flu disappeared almost as fast as it had come on. It was largely forgotten by Americans during the following decades, until 2009. You can probably remember the scare we had just two years ago when the H1N1 virus was circulating. It was a mutation of the Spanish Flu from 90 years ago. We may have dodged a bullet in 2009, but how long will our luck hold?
The 1918 Spanish Flu by the numbers WORLDWIDE:

20% of the world’s population was infected.

30-50 million people worldwide died.

Twice as many people died of the Flu than were killed in WWI.

More died in a single year than in 4 years of the Black Death Plague.

The 1918 Spanish Flu by the numbers in AMERICA:

28% of all Americans were infected.

675,000 Americans died.

10 times more Americans died of the Flu than in WWI combat.

50% of U.S. military casualties in Europe were from the Flu.

43,000 American soldiers died.

12 year drop was seen in the average life expectancy in 1918 alone.

25 times higher mortality rate than in 1917.

(numbers are from the U.S. Archives and Stanford University)

“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza,
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.”
(children’s rope skipping rhyme in 1918)  

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