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Slimantics: A flu season like no other

 

Slim Smith

 

 

This year's flu season has been a bad one. Mississippi is one of 37 states where the flu is considered "widespread" by the Center for Disease Control and is the worst flu season in the state for at least five years, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. 

 

As bad as it has been, it doesn't compare to the worst flu season in our nation's history. 

 

Not even close. 

 

One hundred years ago, a mysterious strain of flu was responsible for 600,000 deaths in the United States over a 10-month period. To put that in perspective, as many people died from that flu outbreak as died in the Civil War. The pandemic killed 30 million world-wide as soldiers spread the disease through the Europe during World War I. 

 

Strangely, the Flu of 1918, is largely forgotten, rarely taught in our schools even though it was responsible for more American deaths that any war or natural disaster. 

 

It struck America at a time when the country was emerging as a great world power. Americans were changing the world with breakthroughs in technology, medicine, manufacturing that would shape the 20th century. It was a supremely confident America. 

 

In medicine, the use of microscopes to identify bacteria led to vaccines that would eliminate some of the world's deadliest diseases. 

 

So when U.S. soldiers training for deployment to Europe began to fall victim to the flu, Americans were confident the medical community would quickly find a cure. 

 

They were wrong. 

 

The flu spread like wildfire, first down the Atlantic Coast and then all across the country. And this was unlike any flu the world had ever witnessed. Patients who reported sore throats and headaches in the morning were often dead by nightfall. 

 

Small towns posted notices at town limits that their communities were under quarantine. The flu came anyway. The demand for casket-makers and grave-diggers quickly exceeded the supply. 

 

The flu moved so quickly and with such devastating effect, that it even became the subject of little girls who sang as they skipped rope: 

 

"I had a little bird. 

 

His name was Enza 

 

I opened the window 

 

And influenza." 

 

Doctors worked around the clock in a futile attempt to identify the disease and find a treatment. The microscopes of that time could identify bacteria -- a major breakthrough in medicine -- but viruses were too small to be detected. It was not until the invention of the electron microscope 15 years later that viruses could be isolated and identified. 

 

Laboring under the false assumption that the disease was bacterial, the medical community prescribed treatments that produced no results. 

 

Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the Flu of 1918 disappeared. No cure was ever found, and even today we know little about it. 

 

Today's flu can be lethal in certain circumstances, usually among infants or the elderly, but the disease usually means a week or so of misery. While our vaccines are not always perfect cures, they reduce the number of cases of flu or limit their symptoms. 

 

If there is a lesson to be learned from The Flu of 1918, it is that there is an unseen battle being waged, a an assault of viruses and bacteria and mutations that the fields of science and medicine are not always equipped to win. 

 

It is a fight whose outcome is not always as certain as we would like to believe. 

 

Even today, there are some things beyond our control. 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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