The Chinese Wuhan Virus: Lessons from the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918

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Guest Essay Written by Ron Brown © 2020

We all remember 9/11 with planes flying into the World Trade Center. After all, some 3,000 people died that day. How could we forget?

In contrast, we have collective amnesia about the worldwide 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

102 years ago, in October 1918 — the peak month for Spanish flu that year — some 6,000 people died in the U.S. . . . every day . . . for the entire month.

Did you forget? Not many people may remember a ditty from that era —

I had a little bird

And its name was Enza.

I opened up the window

And in flew Enza.

The 1918 Spanish Flu was peculiar on several counts:

(1) It primarily attacked healthy adults, more so than weak infants or feeble elderly.

(2) It started in Kansas (not Spain) but nobody knows exactly how.

(3) After 18 months it disappeared as quickly as it appeared; it was never “cured” or conquered by medicine. 

(4) it was FORGOTTEN by many.

The PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) told this version of its origins. (Unfortunately, the transcript, available online in 2006 at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influenza/filmmore/index.html/ is no longer accessible.)

PBS: “Some say it began in the spring of 1918, when soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, burned tons of [chicken and pig] manure. A gale kicked up. A choking dust storm swept out over the land — a stinging, stinking yellow haze.

“Two days later — On March 11th, 1918 — an Army private [at Fort Riley] reported to the camp hospital before breakfast. He had a fever, sore throat, headache . . . By noon the hospital had over a hundred cases; in a week 500.”

“That summer and fall [of 1918], over one and a half million Americans crossed the Atlantic for war. But some of those doughboys came from Kansas. And they brought something with them: a tiny, silent companion.”

Me: It was World War I . . . the war to end all wars. It was a time of super-patriotism; of naiveté; of innocence. We loved our country. We trusted our leaders. Even the children knew that God was on our side, that the United States of America was invincible . . .

Tramp, tramp, tramp. The boys are marching.

I spy Kaiser at the door.

And we’ll get a lemon pie and we’ll squash him in his eye

And there won’t be any Kaiser any more.

Remember that one? Back to our story . . .

PBS: “Almost immediately, the Kansas sickness [a.k.a. Spanish flu] resurfaced in Europe.

“American soldiers got sick. English soldiers. French. German. As it spread, the microbe mutated — day by day becoming more and more deadly.

“By the time the silent traveler came back to America, it had become a relentless killer.

“But even vaccines didn’t help . . . [Doctors] thought it was caused by a bacteria, so they made up a vaccine with the bacteria they thought was influenza . . . They were on the wrong track; the influenza was caused by a virus.

“Science knew next to nothing about viruses at this time. The optical microscopes they had couldn’t show you a virus; virus is much too small for them. Nobody would ever see a virus until the electron microscope came along . . .”

Facemasks were used in 1918

In 1918, people wore facemasks in an attempt to protect themselves. You’ll find lots of old black-and-white photographs if you Google for “Spanish flu facemasks” and click Images.

But folks in 1918 had no idea how small a virus was compared to the pores in their facemasks. The diameter of bacteria is measured in micrometers (millionths of a meter). Viruses are measured in nanometers (billionths of a meter).

Filtering out viruses with a facemask is akin to filtering out confectionary sugar with chicken wire. True in 1918. Still true today.

But aren’t today’s N95 masks better than 1918 masks? Answer: Let’s put it this way. A kitchen sieve is finer than chicken wire but neither one will filter out confectionary sugar.

So how do facemasks stop the spread of viruses? Or don’t they? Answer: They help. But not in the way you might think. Your facemask shields your neighbor from your sneezes. The better your mask, the less of your sneeze droplets — with viruses along for the ride — that reach him. And his mask is the one that shields you. Call it an inconvenient truth.

PBS: “In Europe, the flu was devastating both sides. Seventy thousand American soldiers were sick; in some units, the flu killed 80% of the men. General John Pershing made a desperate plea for reinforcements. But that would mean sending soldiers across the Atlantic on troop ships. [But] there is nothing more crowded than a troop ship . . .

“President Woodrow Wilson now faced an agonizing decision. Sending the soldiers would be signing thousands of death warrants. Wilson gazed out his office window. After a long moment, he nodded. The troop shipments would continue. And then the President turned to his aide. ‘I wonder if you’ve heard this limerick?’ ‘I had a little bird and his name was Enza . . .’

Me: So much for trusted leaders. In fact, the betrayal was worse than what PBS indicates. Federal officials — including President Wilson — knew full well that they should use quarantine; ban public gatherings; impose curfews; close schools; close factories. But that would have hurt the war effort.

And it was not a sin of omission. They ENCOURAGED parades, bond drives, and public rallies. They lied to the American public. They said that the epidemic was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing special, nothing to be unduly alarmed about. Tens of thousands of taxpaying American civilians (not enemy German soldiers) died as a result of the U.S. government lying to its own citizens. Philadelphia is a good example.

PBS: “On September 28, 1918, two hundred thousand people gathered for a 4th Liberty Loan Drive . . . Funding the war effort and showing one’s patriotic colors took precedence over concern for public health . . . Just days after the parade, 635 new cases of influenza were reported . . . In a matter of weeks, the City of Brotherly Love saw 500,000 [infected and 13,000 dead].”

Me: 13,000 dead divided by 500,000 infected is a 2.6% fatality rate. And that makes today’s fatality rate of 3% for the Wuhan virus very worrisome.

I was in high school during the Asian Flu pandemic of 1956-58. The teachers talked about it. We as students talked about it. The fatality rate (or “case fatality rate” if you prefer) was 1/10 of 1%. So the Asian Flu was not taken seriously — one in a thousand was a “who cares” number.

In contrast, the 1976 Legionnaires’ Disease had a 15% fatality rate. It burned itself out too fast to be a threat to society as a whole.

But today’s 3% fatality rate for the Wuhan virus — granted it’s a preliminary number at this point — appears to be in the “sweet spot” (as it’s been termed) to kill one heck of a lot of people.

Most people don’t get it. One lady, for example — who shall remain nameless but who is the author of a book on prepping for pandemics — said recently (in late January 2020), “Maybe I’m missing something, but if the risk of death from Wuhan coronavirus is still under 3%, that’s just not scary. Sure, it’s highly contagious. But, ‘highly contagious’ does not automatically mean ‘highly fatal.’

Sorry, but she’s wrong if she thinks 3% is insignificant. The CFR (case fatality rate) of the 1918 Spanish flu is commonly cited as 2.5%. And, worldwide, the Spanish flu killed between 20 and 50 million people. Today, that number would be 70 to 175 million. The Encyclopædia Britannica says that the 1918 Spanish flu “ranks with the Black Death.” The Wuhan-virus fatality rate — if it indeed turns out to be 3% — is firmly in the sweet spot to kill a lot of people. Another inconvenient truth.

So what are the odds of a pandemic occurring, a big one, where tens of millions of people die?

The odds? 100%. The only question is when? This year? In your lifetime? Nobody knows. But will it happen? Yes. Absolutely. In the statistical long run it’s gonna happen.

As a parallel example, sooner or later the city of New Orleans, having been built below sea level, was destined to be hit with a monster storm and go underwater. Which happened with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And if we rebuild it in kind, which we did, sooner or later it will happen again. Way deep down, we all know that.

And sooner or later a flu strain is gonna come along that wipes out a big chunk of the human race. We all know that, too.

Let’s Prepare Ourselves

So let’s ditch the small talk. How can we best prepare — both ourselves and our families — for the onslaught of the Chinese Wuhan virus (which currently looks like it just might be “the one”)?

IMHO, we’re early in the Wuhan game and the most important thing we can do is to prepare mentally. Most of the difficulties that cause individuals to lose a contest or competition are mental in nature. Think about singers and dancers and ice skaters and skiers and gymnasts. They practice and rehearse until they equal the best in the world. But then the music starts and the lights come on and the judges take out their clipboards. And they finish 17th. It’s a mental thing.

I was born in 1940, only 22 years after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I never once heard the 1918 flu discussed by my parents or grandparents nor by any of my classroom teachers from a one-room schoolhouse through university graduation. Never, ever, not once! Isn’t that amazing? Plus, as I later learned, my grandfather’s sister died in 1918 from Spanish flu. Merciful heavens!

Call it collective denial.

Are you familiar with the five stages of grief? They were first articulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. These same steps or stages apply to all of life’s traumas.

The five steps are: (1) Denial. (2) Anger. (3) Bargaining. (4) Depression. (5) Acceptance. Whether it’s discovering that you have but three months to live, or that your wife is cheating on you, or that a deadly pandemic is in progress and bearing down on your family . . .

You MUST, if you’re a human being, go through all five steps from denial to acceptance — not necessarily in the same sequence each time; not necessarily with the same degree of intensity from step to step or trauma to trauma. But you MUST touch ALL the bases EVERY time. That’s how human beings are programmed.

My point is this. To survive, we must get past denial.

It’s a mental thing. The odds of a world-wide killer flu emerging — sooner or later — are 100%. If it’s happened before then it will happen again. And the quicker you can accept that certainty the quicker you can make logical preparations. There are lots of books and web sites offering help. But getting your head together — accepting the inevitable rather than denying it — is the first step. So let’s go! Hop down off the porch and hitch up your big-boy pants.

 

About the Author

I’m a retired engineer. I live in the countryside in upstate New York (not to be confused with New York City). My only real claim to fame is a series of eight books on Amazon entitled “The Non-Electric Lighting Series.” Each book in the series is available in both Kindle and paper format. The series has been well received. Whenever I’m feeling sorry for myself I review the readers’ comments. And I always come away smiling. Gee, maybe I’m not such a bad guy after all.


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6 comments

  1. Thank you for the history lesson on the Spanish Flu. I travel a lot for business and his has me worried I can tell you. I’m looking at options on staying home and doing business from here via internet only.

    I agree with you this think could get bad.

    Thanks again for the information.

    1. Hi Dave, Hope your employer sees that value in doing business online for now. Perhaps they will appreciate the cost savings. You can conduct meetings via WebEx or Skype, they will save a ton on travel expenses. Thanks for the comment.

  2. My father was born in 1918. He also contracted Spanish flu as an infant. Being at their wits end, his mother treated him with whiskey. Obviously he recovered or I wouldn’t be typing this. Was it Spanish flu? I can’t say for certain, but that is the family story. (Grandmother was of Scottish descent so it was probably a single malt.)

    1. Hi Andrew, That is an interesting story, having Spanish flu or something close in the family history. Whiskey and other strong alcohol does have medicinal properties, although not sure how it worked there. Thanks for sharing.

  3. the Spanish flu is indeed a mystery. It is accepted today it started in Kansas, not Spain. What is mysterious is that it appeared on both sides of the world at the same time?!….How, before the age of the jet plane…when it took months or weeks to travel by boat did the disease….”spread”?…Exobiologists now believe that the earth was visited by meteorites. These meteorites hit the earth….on all or several continents at the same time. After what ever the gestation period of the virus required….cases of virus struck humans, and the virus spread via normal means,,,,airborne sneeze, unwashed hands….etc…Since 1918 we have discovered that the cold of space and the heat of rocks entering the atmosphere does NOT kill bacteria and other “life”…Experiments during the apollo program where a bacteria filled petri dish was secured on the outside of one of the capsules….for weeks ( I think it was a Gemini mission) and retrieved before the astronauts came home. Scientists were shocked that the lack of air, the extreme temperatures and the radiation of space did not kill all the bacteria. So, This and other science from the space missions has strengthened the theory that life may have come to earth….from other wolds….So the “Spanich flu” may have come to both sides of the earth…at the same time in 1918…

    1. During World War I, the Americans, Germans, French, etc. kept the flu a secret. Nobody wanted their enemies to know how badly the flu was impacting them. But Spain was a neutral country and didn’t take either side in the War. So the Spanish newspapers were filled with flu news. If you took the newspapers at face value, Spain was the only country that had flu. So that’s how the “Kansas illness” became the “Spanish flu.”

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