21 February 2008

Influenza of 1918

I had a little bird,
and its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flew-Enza.

World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history. Strangely enough, my high school history class seemed to overlook this incredible fact. Why?

The plague emerged in two phases. In late spring of 1918, the first phase, known as the "three-day fever," appeared without warning. Few deaths were reported. Victims recovered after a few days. When the disease surfaced again that fall, it was far more severe. Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death. My grandmother would often tell the story of her older brother, a fit 21 year old Irish lad went out in the fields to work in the morning. By evening, he turned a blueish black and passed away. She, too had the disease where her hair eventually turned bright white from the high fever and fell out later.

The plague did not discriminate. It was rampant in urban and rural areas, from the densely populated East coast to the remotest parts of Alaska. Young adults, usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children. The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years. In Europe, World War I did not cause the flu, the close troop quarters and massive troop movements hastened the pandemic. Researchers speculate that the soldiers' immune systems were weakened by the stresses of combat and chemical attacks, increasing their susceptibility to the disease.

A large factor of worldwide flu prevalence was increased travel. The modern transportation systems made it easier for soldiers, sailors, and travelers to spread the disease quickly and to communities worldwide. Knowing the virus was airborne, people were forced to use protective gauze masks, which in the long run probably didn't do much.

Now, I am still wondering why all this was skipped over in my high school?


Eli said...

What a great illustration, and a nice bit of history too. Wow, 12 years off the life expectancy, amazing...

Jennifer Syas said...

I watched a documentary on this very recently, and wondered the exact same thing. Why weren't we taught this? It seems like a dangerous bit of knowledge for society to forget. When I saw this image on your MySpace, without any title, I knew what it was right off and started singing, "I opened up a window, and in-flew-Enza..."
Between this piece and your piece "Le Medecin" I really think you should do a series on plagues, if that's not what you're doing already. :)