George Santayana wrote that those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, a sentiment said by others in many ways, though we rarely heed the advice. It was 100 years ago now that the world encountered a pathogen more deadly than the world war then at its height.
The 1918 flu killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. The first record of what was later confirmed to be a new strain of influenza was on March 4, 1918 when Albert Gitchell reported sick to the doctor assigned to Fort Riley in Haskell County, Kansas, who was Dr. Loring Minor. By the time Gitchell died, over 500 soldiers at the camp had sickened as well.
The area where the fort was located was pig-farming country, which could have spread the disease to humans, but other theories of its origin suggest that its first human infections occurred in Asia. What pathologists do know is that the circumstances of 1918 were the setting for the perfect contagion storm that took place. For the first time in history, travel across and between countries had become common. Soldiers from all sides were packed closely together making the spread of the flu through coughing a firestorm of disease. As they were transferred, they carried the infection with them.
Notably, the 1918 strain of flu struck hardest at the young, especially soldiers, presumably because they had not gained any level of immunity from similar strains that older persons might have experienced. Once the disease had been identified, the public was urged to stay isolated and to wear masks in public. All that were available, however, were of porous cotton, which offered little protection.
The central focus for the disease became military bases in France, where soldiers passed through on the way to the front. Oddly, it took the name, the “Spanish Flu,” because the country was neutral, and the press there was permitted to report the extent of the carnage the disease caused.
By whatever name, the virus is believed to have mutated as it circled the globe, becoming even more virulent. It ultimately may have abated only because it had consumed most of its available victims. In the course of less than a year, 3 to 5 percent of mankind died.
With modern medical care and flu vaccines, we tend to downplay the impact of the flu today. A 2013 study, however, estimated that a similar flu pandemic today would kill perhaps as many as 300,000 in this country alone – better than half of the impact of the 1918 strain here. If those numbers don’t concern you, consider the fact that this year’s flu vaccine appears to have only been 20 percent effective.
There is little we know about influenza. Indeed, we can only guess what type of flu will come later this year and cobble together vaccine elixirs that we hope will help. One wonders what Santayana, who lived through the 1918 pandemic, would say today.