Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Flu Then & Now

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Loretta reports:

Trying to collect a prescription last week, I entered a pharmacy whose counter was heaped with bags of medication awaiting pick up, and whose pharmacists were all frantically busy.  The current raging flu season was the reason.

A Central Massachusetts columnist reminded me that, bad as it is, the current flu epidemic is small potatoes compared to the one that struck at the end of WWI.  The flu pandemic of 1918-20 affected ¼ of the U.S. population, yet the country’s death rate of 675,000 was lower than in many other places.  It was the worst pandemic since the Black Plague, to which it bore some resemblance: The symptoms of Spanish Flu (aka Purple Death) were gruesome, it killed very quickly, and it was undiscriminating, affecting young adults as much as—and in some cases more than—the elderly, ill, and small children. 

“No figures exist for many parts of the world, but the pandemic is estimated to have infected 50% of the world’s population, 25% suffered a clinical infection and the total mortality was 40–50 million: the often quoted figure of 20 million deaths is palpably too low (Crosby 1976).”
C.W. Potter, A History of Influenza

The 19th century, though, was by no means flu-free.  Several epidemics occurred (IIRC, I killed some characters in the 1826 epidemic), including a pandemic in 1830-33 comparable to the 1918 plague, but with a somewhat lower death rate.

Here, as in so many other cases, physicians disagreed about whether or not it was contagious.  The Lancet of 1837 insisted it wasn’t. 

The preferred treatment, as you might expect, was bloodletting.

Illustration at top: St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty Oct. 1918 Influenza epidemic.  Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
Illustration at bottom from The London Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 10, 1803


Joanna Waugh said...

I remember there was a one street ghost town near the small farm community where my mother grew up. As a child, I asked her why no one lived there. She said everyone in it had died during the flu epidemic following WWI. It was creepy to see those empty clapboard houses.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

It amazes me when I read about bloodletting. What on earth made physicians think that could help anything.

YankeeQuilter said...

Two of my Great Uncles, twins, died in the epidemic. One of them fell sick and was taken to Carney Hospital in Dorchester (part of Boston.) They were short medical staff due to the flu so his brother stayed with him. After the first one died his brother stayed on to help. He died from the flu a few weeks later...they were in their early 20's.

Hels said...

It cannot be a coincidence that the flu pandemic started up and spread just as the world's worst ever war just finished. Imagine the diseases being spread, the food crops destroyed, the water dirtied, the bodies left exposed etc etc.

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

For a list of genealogists who have written 14 different blog posts about how the 1918 flu epidemic changed their family history, see my blog at this link: http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2013/02/follow-friday-1918-flu-epidemic.html

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