1918 Legacy Better Flu Shots

Volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital in 1918.

With 2.8 million confirmed cases and 200,000 deaths worldwide — including more than 900,000 cases and nearly 50,00 deaths in the U.S., we all now realize that the coronavirus pandemic has become the worst global health crisis in our lifetimes. But, as The News-Review reporter Jon Mitchell reminded us in a chilling story on Thursday, this is not our first or most deadly war with such a virus. As Mitchell revealed, in 1918 the Spanish Flu rolled through the world, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide and nearly 700,000 in the U.S., including many in Douglas County.

“No place escaped it,” Dr. Hall Seely, a longtime Douglas County resident, said back in 1978 in recalling the Spanish Flu. “We had nothing to hold it back.”

With the devastation came lessons though, that should help guide us today as we wrestle with the coronavirus, how to contain it, and how to safely, over time, get life back to normal here and across the country.

1. Social distancing saves livesSocial distancing is at this point the most effective tool in our tool box to fight the coronavirus. And as we’ve seen here in Oregon, as painful as it can be economically, it works. During the Spanish flu the public stopped distancing too early, health experts say, which led to a second wave that was much deadlier than the first.

“It was like a plague,” Seely said. “If any meetings were held, schools, theaters, club activities or anything, there would always be more patients come out…The mortality was excessive.”

2. Avoid crowdsThe Spanish Flu had a massive second wave, and historians say that was fueled in part by the relaxation of social distancing standards, including large gatherings.

One occurred toward the end of the first wave in 1918 in San Francisco, when the number of Spanish Flu cases was close to zero. City officials allowed a large parade downtown, spectators took their masks off and the Spanish Flu came roaring back.

In Philadelphia, 600 sailors from the navy yard had been diagnosed with the Spanish Flu, yet a large parade was allowed. Within days more than 600 new cases of the Spanish Flu were confirmed. Philadelphia soon had a death toll of 10,000, the highest in the country.

Around the same time, St. Louis city officials cancelled a scheduled parade. That city’s death toll stayed below 700.

3. Seek the truthThe Spanish Flu spread during World War 1, and many government officials from across the globe were reluctant to release any information that might hurt national moral. So they downplayed the spread and seriousness of the Spanish Flu, as did much of the media. Many government officials worldwide, including in the U.S., early on reported that the Spanish Flu was akin to the common cold.

We have seen the same downplaying of the coronavirus. That can’t happen. We all need to feel that we’re in this together and we trust our policy-makers. That is difficult to do if those policy-makers are not transparent and truthful.

4. Avoid unproven drugsDo we really need to tell you not to drink bleach? Of course not. But there is a tendency to reach for quick medicinal solutions, even if they are untested and potentially dangerous. A century ago all manner of snake oil was pedaled as a cure for the Spanish Flu. Sadly, we’re seeing a similar phenomena today. Let science take its course here.

5. Prepare for a second waveThe first wave of Spanish Flu, which came in the spring of 1918, wasn’t that deadly. But by the end of the summer the virus had mutated and a second wave spread across the world, much deadlier than the before. That second wave is thought to be responsible for the vast majority of total deaths worldwide. In the U.S. alone, nearly 200,000 Americans died from the flu in October alone.

We may also be facing a second wave, many experts say.

“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through. And when I’ve said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean,” sRobert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently. “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”

We would be well served to learn from history, and not repeat it.

Scott Carroll can be reached at scarroll@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4204. Or follow him on Twitter @scottcarroll15.

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I just finished reading The Great Influenza by John Barry. Deja vu. It is about the 1918 epidemic. Mostly it tells the story of how the scientists of the day struggled to figure out what caused the disease (the consensus was that it was a bacteria, not a virus.) The story also tells the sad story about what happened in Philadelphia, a total breakdown of its corrupt municipal government. And it tells how Pres Wilson failed to even mention that the disease was a threat. He was concerned about World War I, and as the NR editor noted, was more worried about maintaining morale.

The book is available at our library.

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