So it seems like everyone lately has the flu. Schools are sending warnings home to parents. Hospitals are telling patients with the flu not to come in. The Centers for Disease Control has said that is has hit epidemic level.
So how bad can it get?
The worst to date has been the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. It left about 50 million dead after just a couple months. I wrote about it in my novel October Mourning. I’ve also written about half a dozen articles about it and given a couple talks about it.I continue to be fascinated (scared?) by it.
It killed more people than World War I and in a shorter time frame, too, yet the war had the headlines during 1918. It was estimated that 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu or 10 times more than died in the war.
It killed more people in one year than the Black Plague did in 4 years.
It was so devastating that human life span was reduced by 10 years in 1918.
Here’s how it was described. One physician wrote that patients rapidly “develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen” and later when cyanosis appeared in patients “it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.” Another doctor said that the influenza patients “died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their mouth and nose.”
Public meetings were cancelled. Street cars and other public transportation had to travel with windows open. Plus, you couldn’t spit on the street and needed to use a handkerchief when you cough or sneeze or face a fine in many places.
It wasn’t that the flu was particularly deadly. It was about 10 times deadlier than the average flu, or rather, it had a 2.5 percent mortality rate according to one report I read. While deadly for flu, there are diseases with a much-higher mortality rate. The thing about those diseases is that they usually aren’t that contagious. I’ve read that the Spanish Flu struck half of the world’s population.
So turn it into a math problem.
A disease like ebola kills about 50 percent of those who get it, but there were only something like 21,000 cases last year. So the chances of you catching ebola, much less dying from it were unlikely.
However, Spanish Flu killed 2.5 percent of those who got it and you had a 50 percent chance of catching it. That means 15 out of every 1000 people in the world, regardless of whether they caught the flu or not, died.
Doctors and nurses, who were exposed more frequently to sick patients, caught the flu. Many died, leaving a heavier burden on those behind. They found themselves at even a greater risk of exposure.
Medical personnel weren’t the only ones affected. Trains struggled to run on time because of sick personnel. Few operators meant that fewer calls were getting through.
Then the flu season ended and fewer cases were reported. There was a bit of a resurgence in early 1919, but the flu had already started mutating. The new form wasn’t as contagious, and by the fall, the flu was back to being just something that kept people home from work or school for a few days.