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Lessons from the Past: The 1918 Flu Pandemic (Part 1)

In 1918, the world experienced a pandemic caused by a particularly virulent strain of the influenza A virus.  Over the course of two years, it went around the world in four big waves, then faded.  By the end of the pandemic, it is estimated that 1/3 of the entire world population had been infected and that about 30 million people had died.  The virus, the H1N1 strain of influenza A, is still with us today and occasionally causes illness, but nothing like in 1918.  It was responsible for the Russian flu epidemic of 1977 and the Swine flu pandemic in 2009.  

While influenza A is in a different family of viruses than SARS-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID, there are enough similarities to make it useful to look at.  Both seem to have started in animals before jumping to humans.  Both are spread primarily by respiratory droplets and at about the same contagious rate (for each person infected between 2 to 3 more will catch it from that person on average).  Mask wearing is highly effective in preventing transmission in both.  During both pandemics, the virus underwent significant mutations leading to different strains.  The mortality rate of H1N1 is difficult to gage, however, it appears to have been similar to COVID ranging from 2% to 5% depending on the area.  The reaction of the public to health mandates was also similar, such as resistance to mask wearing.  Perhaps by examining what happened in 1918, we can get some understanding of what is happening now and make some tentative predictions on what the future will hold for COVID.

Despite being called the Spanish flu, because that was the first country to honestly report its cases, the pandemic appears to have begun in the United States. Genetic research suggests, however, that the story begins in October of 1872 in Ontario, Canada, where cases of equine influenza were first identified.  This influenza A virus, which infects horses, is very similar genetically to H1N1.  Within a month, the disease had spread into Northeastern US and over the next year across much of North America.  Reports in New York were that 95% of horses were ill.  While only about 1% died, the horses that survived were left unable to work for several weeks.  This had a huge economic and social impact as much agriculture at the time depended on horses.  General transportation of people and goods was also mostly horse drawn; including fire engines that brought water to fires.  The lack of healthy horses to pull “water pumpers” played a significant role in the Great Boston Fire of November, 9th, 1872.  After two years, the pandemic faded. Equine influenza is still with us today, largely held in check because of an effective vaccine against it.

In 1878, six years after the equine influenza pandemic ended, an avian influenza pandemic erupted in the Midwest.  This was colloquially known as “henfluenza” because it was particularly devastating to chickens.  Genetic similarity between the two and the close timing suggests that the equine influenza virus had mutated and jumped species, now infecting domestic chickens and turkeys.  

In 1915, there were several cases of an unusually aggressive form of influenza in farmers in the Midwest.  World War I was in full swing and not much attention was paid to this, however, some researchers suggest that this was the beginning of the 1918 influenza outbreak. Michael Worobey is a professor of viral genetics at my alma mater, the University of Arizona.  He has spent much of his career studying the evolution of viruses and in particular H1N1.  Based on his analysis of the genes of equine influenza, avian influenza and human influenza H1N1, he believes that this virus jumped from horses to chickens and then to humans and that this likely took place on farms in the American Midwest.

The 1918 influenza pandemic is generally accepted to have started on March 4th, 1918, at US Army Camp Funston in Kansas.  A group of young Army recruits arrived for training on that day from Haskell County, Kansas.   Two months earlier, in January 1918, local physician Dr. Loring Miner had written to the US Public Health Service warning that he was seeing an unusually aggressive outbreak of influenza in Haskell County.  Within three days of the recruits’ arrival at the camp, over 500 men were hospitalized in the camp infirmary.

Camp Funston was an important staging camp for sending US troops to Europe to fight in WWI.  Fearing that the outbreak would lead to the loss of valuable troops, the decision was made to quickly ship as many healthy appearing men to England for further training.  They were sent by train to New York, where after a brief layover, boarded troop ships to cross the Atlantic.  The influenza outbreak spread along the train route they had taken and popped up as a fierce outbreak in New York.

During the two weeks it took for the transport ships to cross the Atlantic, many of the soldiers became seriously ill and several hundred died before reaching England.  Upon arriving in England, the men were only too happy to disembark and seek relaxation at the local establishments.  It wasn’t long before the new strain of influenza was gripping the island nation.  While most of the US troops were sent on to France to fight in the trenches, thus spreading the pandemic to the rest of Europe, a sizable group of the Camp Funston men were sent to various locations in the Mediterranean, including Turkey.  Thus, the pandemic was quickly spread to the African and Asian continents as well.

The world has seen many plagues since humans began to settle down from their nomadic roaming origins.  However, pandemics of the modern era starting with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic have all been aided by our ever more efficient means of transportation.  While, in 1918 it may have taken two weeks to get across the ocean from New York to London by steam ship, today it takes just a few hours by jet aircraft.  This is clearly a very important factor in the spread of infectious diseases today.

In part 2 of this three-part series, we will examine some of the public health responses that were taken, how effective they were or weren’t and, perhaps most interesting, the backlash against these measures by the public.  Part 3 will be a discussion of how the 1918 pandemic ended and a look to how this may foretell our future with COVID.

The views shared in this weekly column are those of the author, Dr. William Miller, and do not necessarily represent those of the publisher or of Adventist Health.

7 Comments

  1. Douglas Coulter April 29, 2021

    The death rate for H1N1 was much higher than Covid 19 and it killed healthy people quickly.
    Compare the 1906 quake Loma Prieta! Covid19 is only a problem because earth is over crowded and transportation is too quick. A virus like H1N1 today would result in billions dead. We love to dream man can control nature but nature always wins in the end. Meanwhile the pharmaceutical industry rakes in the cash at our expense and anyone who questions them is a hieratic. The religion we call science is now based upon profit and just like every religion they lost site of their god, unbiased repeatable experiments, to an agenda.
    What is the difference between a panhandler and a preacher?
    The bum begs with a cup, the preacher begs with a bucket!
    Modern medicine abandons the Hypocratic Oath for “first do Pharm”. Just like tobacco companies they hide the harm chemicals do and sell snake oil.
    Just like priests they offer sermons in Latin that the congregation cannot understand.

  2. Wendy April 29, 2021

    Lessons from the past…bacterial pneumonia, not a virus, was the killer in 1918. Too much attention was placed on a virus then and now, with the obvious endgame being to use the world’s population as test subjects for experimental mRNA vaccines. I suggest that if we were not bombarded with daily death counts and now “cases,” which used to mean sick people, not just anyone testing positive via the PCR that was never designed and is not equipped to detect an active viral infection, we would have no idea there was a global pandemic or a “deadly virus” circulating the globe. Moreover the mortality rate has been less that one percent, even with questionable numbers.

  3. izzy April 30, 2021

    Apparently, the so-called Spanish Flu epidemic was largely a scourge of bacterial pneumonia. Please see links below, and note the second article from 2008 is co-authored by none other than Anthony Fauci. And historical evidence shows that the first cases actually appeared in Kansas at Fort Riley, where the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was running an early vaccine experiment with the troops. Who then carried the bug around the world during the war. The misinformation swirling around the issue we have today is not dissimilar.

    https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/14/8/07-1313_article

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2599911/

    • Wendy April 30, 2021

      Try posting the information Izzy shared in any social media forum and the fact checkers will slap a box on the comment and over the study “debunking” it, as if the mainstream science narrative put forth today by Tedros, Fauci and the Big Pharma mouthpieces around viruses, especially pandemics and Sars cov-2, is now static and an absolute to be accepted by all without question.

      A commercial by a television scientist posits that people may know enough to think they are right about Holy Science, but not enough to know they are wrong. I believe the message is “Trust the (television) scientists,” and as Douglas Coulter so aptly coined the phrase “first do Pharm.” Even leftists, Marxists and socialists are trusting the “experts” and chanting the mantra “Trust THE Science”

      The idea that the US government might conspire with the vaccine industry to experiment on enlisted men or women without their consent, or that vaccines might be the cause of anything but life saving herd immunity (except in what they say are RARE cases when they kill) will get you slapped with the title of tin-foil hat wearing right wing conspiracy theorist. Merriam Webster et. al are going to have to change science’s definition to “whatever they (the for-profit scientists) say it is” and hippocratic to hypocritic.

  4. Bob A. April 30, 2021

    Glad I’m not coming to this comments section for medical advice. I’ll put it bluntly: None of the commentators above know what the hell they’re talking about. Normally, I’d just let this sort of nonsense from the chemtrail community slide, but in this case their words have the potential of doing real harm.

    • Kirk Lang May 7, 2021

      Thank you!

    • Douglas Coulter May 7, 2021

      How Rush Limbaugh of you. Criticize the messenger without refuting the message.
      Meanwhile big pharm rakes in billions at the expense of the public. The right to peaceful assemble is taken away without due process and you seem to find that reassuring. Yet that remains the number one tool of every tyrant.
      Fake news? In 1918 influenza was fake news, in 1940 Nazi Death Camps were fake news, see a patern?

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