Lessons from the 1918 influenza pandemic

Health

Lessons from the 1918 influenza pandemic

Warrick
Lattibeaudiere

Sunday, February 16, 2020

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WHILE no one can definitively say where the flu of 1918 started or how, some have attributed its start to Spain, an area hard hit by the virus in May of the year, hence the term Spanish flu.

Truth be told, China and the US had witnessed the outbreak in March of the same year. It had a start experts would consider relatively mild in the spring of 1918, when it lasted for three days. However, its resurgence in autumn would go down as unforgettable to humankind.

While it is said Boston was the starting point in the US, in a few days people were literally falling like flies all over. The dead were piled up in corridors and rooms, dead rooms (which were later declared living rooms when the virus vanished, according to The Ladies' Home Journal). The stench was unbearable. Remote villages across central Africa, the Eskimos of Alaska and the islands of the Pacific coast were devastatingly hit. Piled-up bodies became pyres, as people were dying at a rate faster than graves could be dug.

Only St Helena and Mauritius were said to have escaped this pandemic.

 

The stats

While a figure of 21 million has been cited as the toll wreaked by this angel of death, experts are now judging this figure as way too low, with citations of between 50 million and 100 million people. Weighing in on the ghastly sum is noted epidemiologist John M Barry, in his book The Great Influenza: “Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years.”

In all, some 500,000,000 people had to take to bed, with pregnant women facing a double threat. How did some recover? Can we learn today from what some did then?

 

Treatment

Resting in bed proved to be invaluable advice doctors ordered. Keeping warm and drinking plenty of fluids did much good also.

Different doctors experimented with different methods of treatment, some more novel than others. One doctor in Chicago had under his care 600 patients treating with a mixture primarily comprising grapefruit. Every one survived save for his son, who, ironically, defied his father's orders and came out of bed so as to tend to his burgeoning undertaking business.

Clearly, grapefruit — rich in vitamin C, a great antioxidant, along with its carotenoid and limonoid components, phytonutrients — boosted bodies and immune systems against the deadly flu of 1918-9.

In Cincinnati, where 40,000 cases were reported, some benefited from the advice one doctor gave. He advised for one to have a big pan of onions in the room as well as apply a poultice of the onion to the chest. To the surprise of many, individuals recovered from pneumonia, which had been the worst stage of the flu.

 

Safeguards

Given the global panic, everything seemed to be a precaution — from wearing fresh pyjamas to not shaking hands, taking castor oil, washing hands ever so often, and avoiding subways. Many had to wear face masks and strict fines or imprisonment were imposed in some areas. In other areas, one could not board a public vehicle without wearing a mask.

Many libraries stopped circulating books, for fear the virus would spread with them. Barbers could not shave customers as this contact was felt to be too risky. Some streets were awash with sanitising agents. Public sneezing was banned and punishable by fines and jail terms. As simple as this seemed, it helped to curtail the pestilence further, since a sneeze can send out 85,000,000 bacteria with particles reaching a distance of 12 feet, which can remain suspended for upwards of half an hour in the air. Clearly, everyone's health became his or her concern, and people felt that desperate times called for desperate measures.

As the world braces for what might result from the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, people will do well to recall the havoc wreaked by Spanish influenza and recognise that these flu-like viruses in our time are nothing to joke about. While it is not expected that the number of fatalities from COVID-19 will be anything near that of the Spanish flu, we will do well to follow precautions given and boost our immune system as much as possible, such that, individually, we are ready.

 

Warrick Lattibeaudiere (PhD), a minister of religion for the past 22 years, lectures full-time in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Jamaica.


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