It’s been 101 years since a novel virus swept around the world, shutting down borders, businesses, schools and worship on the scale that the COVID 19 virus is doing today.
A century ago, the close of World War I and the return of soldiers to their home countries spread the Spanish flu with staggering speed. Today’s virus has spread with equal speed despite the advances of modern technology and medicines, thanks to the same technology that blends the world into a single community.
As bad as the COVID-19 coronavirus has been, as bad as it may become, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 reminds us that the world has survived similar and, at least of this date, far deadlier challenges in the past, though not without terrible price.
Where the Spanish flu began is still debated today, but there is no debate that the close of World War I sent the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century across the globe. It was first identified among U.S. military personnel in the spring of 1918 and may have begun at a military base in Kansas.
With debate over its origin, why is this pandemic called the Spanish flu? Some historians say it was a lack of censorship. At that time, Spain, neutral during the war, reported more freely on the mysterious deadly ailment than many of its European neighbors, creating the assumption that it began there.
About 500 million, one third of the world’s population at the time, became infected with the virus, according to estimates from the Center for Disease Control. Deaths were estimated at 50 million worldwide, though some estimates place it as high as 100 million. Given the range of numbers, the Spanish flu had a 4 to 10 percent death rate.
The flu reached Haywood County in October 1918, subsided in November, but resurged in January of 1919, lingering through that spring.
What puzzled doctors then and researchers later was the disease’s unpredictable nature. Today’s COVID-19 poses the greatest threat to the elderly and those with health problems.
In 1918, doctors were used to seeing elderly and infirm patients die from the flu, but the new strain took otherwise healthy men and women of all ages. Children, teenagers and the middle-aged — none were safe. Deadly pneumonia, and sometimes meningitis, claimed many flu victims.
In Haywood County, at least 35 deaths from Spanish flu were reported in the Carolina Mountaineer and Waynesville Courier, though the number was likely far higher, given that obituaries were not a regular feature of the newspaper, and reports of deaths were simply collected from community correspondents. Among those reports:
“Charlie Parton on the L.M. Welch Farm has lost his wife from flu. He has also lost his youngest child.”
“Noah Green, aged 23 years, died Sunday in the Allens Creek section…. He was a flu victim and leaves a widow and one child.”
“We regret to report the death of Mr. and Mrs. Horace W. Owen of Jonathan’s Creek, leaving three small children. They had the flu.”
“Two year old child of Mr. and Mrs. Allen Gaddis died Tuesday of influenza.”
“Mark, the 18-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Leroy Francis, passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 15, of pneumonia following influenza.”
“William Russell, aged about 55 years, died at the Will Tate place on Camp Branch Monday of influenza and pneumonia. Eight others in the family were down at the time “
The late David Felmet Sr. recalled the Spanish flu in a Mountaineer story in 1997. David was 9 years old when his father, brother, mother and sister came down with the flu. His 18-month-old sister died of the resulting meningitis. David’s father died soon after. Eight years later, David’s mother died, and he believes it was the flu that killed her, for she never fully recovered, he said.
“People were scared to death,” Felmet said. “I remember some of the men would come occasionally and pass food through the window into the house. … People were definitely afraid to come in where you were, and even when the doctors came, they wore gauze masks.”
At one point, 10 new cases a day were being reported in Haywood County.
Like today, local governments closed offices and schools. Moving picture theaters and churches closed. Most funerals were kept private. The Red Cross sent soup and other foods to sick families.
Newspaper advertisements pleaded for volunteers to help the sick and deliver food. Those volunteers were acknowledged as heroes, risking their lives to help others.
Hazelwood reported 145 cases of the flu out of a population of 300.
“Never before in the history of our country have so many people been ill at one time,” said J.R. McCracken, county superintendent of health.
Big cities were hit hard. In Philadelphia, 7,000 died within two weeks. In New York City, 9,000 died in a week’s time. Influenza deaths in the winter of 1918-1919 topped 550,000. When the Spanish flu faded with spring, it had killed more in a year than the First World War had claimed in five.
At the time, scientists believed the Spanish flu — and other influenzas, were caused by bacteria. Bacteria could be detected; it would be another decade before viruses could be detected by microscope.
This belief was strengthened by the fact that the flu often led to a secondary, bacterial pneumonia infection. It would also take another decade to recognize that strains of flu can pass from animals, such as birds, to humans.
Scientists today continue to research the connection in hopes of better controlling outbreaks that are usually far more deadly in humans than in their original animal hosts.
Two years ago, one of those scientists described his work in an essay for The Conversation, on online scientific research publication, which was reprinted in Scientific American.
“Neither public health authorities nor medical researchers understood that it was a virus that caused the 1918 pandemic — most of the world at that time didn’t even know what a virus was,” wrote Jonathan Runstadler. “A century later, death due to infection is much less common … nonetheless, 100 years later, infectious disease specialists like me still fear the emergence of viral diseases that we will not be able to control, including influenza.”
In addition to the source cited above, sources for this story include “The killer epidemic that changed the face of Haywood County,” The Enterprise Mountaineer, Nov. 14, 1997; and the Spanish Influenza website by the Centers for Disease Control.