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1918 and the Spanish Flu

By Chad Hobbs


 There has been a lot of talk about the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-1919, as the world fights to get the upper hand on the current Covid-19 outbreak. They are both pandemics in their own right, but the Spanish flu that hit just over one hundred years ago was unlike any one the modern world has ever seen. It is also provides a cautionary tale for us as well.  In this edition of the Messenger, we have included a compilation of news clips from our archives, showing how this very paper was reporting on the epidemic at the height of its spread. In this article, we will take a more in depth look at the bigger picture of the outbreak from today’s vantage point, looking back.  A mild wave of the Spanish flu hit in the spring of 1918 that was hit or miss. It returned later that fall, however, with a vengeance, killing over 675,000 Americans and somewhere between 50-100 million people across the globe by the time it was through.    All most three quarters of all deaths took place between the end of September 1918 and January of 1919. Though 1918 would be the final year of World War I, statistics show that more soldiers died from the flu in the final months of the war than they did in the four years of war combined. As you will see in the article from the Messenger’s past, army camps were hit hard. People in their twenties were one of the most vulnerable groups. Patients bled from their mouth, nose, ears and eyes. One military doctor wrote in his correspondence that soldiers turned so blue from lack of oxygen that he couldn’t tell white and black soldiers apart. Unlike the Lyme disease which is named after its place of discovery in Lyme, Pennsylvania or Middle Eastern Respiratory Disease, West Nile Virus, Hong Kong flu, or many other diseases named for the place they were discovered, the Spanish flu had little to do with Spain as far as origin. In early 1918, President Woodrow Wilson had forced through congress the Sedition Act. It was an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act which made it a crime for anyone to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. armed forces’ prosecution of the war effort or to promote the success of the country’s enemies. The Sedition Act added weight in terms of fining and prosecuting anyone who said or published anything negative that could be seen as interfering with the war effort. Other countries fighting in WWI had enforced similar, if not harsher, parameters on their own news press. Spain was not in the war and as a result had not instituted such measures on its press. Since Spain was one of the few countries freely reporting on the flu after its onset, it became known as the Spanish flu from there on out.  Back here in the States, the Committee on Public Information, formed in 1917 by President Wilson, became a propaganda machine to push the war effort. Chairman George Creel once stated, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms, the force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” With such a mindset from its leader, it was of little wonder that propaganda started popping up around the country comparing Spanish flu, as one sign read, to “old-fashioned influenza, nothing more.”  At the height of the outbreak in the fall of 1918, Philadelphia made a decision that many are talking about, today, in comparison to how the Covid-19 outbreak is being handled. A large war bond parade was scheduled to take place there. Many health experts warned against it and begged government officials to cancel it. Some went to newspapers trying to warn people, but the stories never made it to press thanks in part to the Sedition Act.    Within two days after the parade, Philadelphia became inundated with the disease as it exploded throughout the city. Hospitals were so overwhelmed and people were dying at such a fast rate that there are pictures of steam shovels digging mass graves for the 14,500 citizens that died as a result in the City of Brotherly Love. Much has changed in the hundred years since that pandemic and the one we face today. Doctors were concerned with the 3 C’s: clean mouth, clean skin and clean bowels but never any mention of washing ones hands. Three of the most prominent treatments around the country were enemas/laxatives, bloodletting and whiskey. Anuric tablets, lemonade, ice cream, and buttermilk will not be on many doctors lists for viral treatment in hospitals today.  It is estimated one third of the world’s population was infected with Spanish flu. Cities’ responses to the crisis, such as St. Louis’ shuttering versus Philadelphia’s parade, are being mentioned still today. If we have learned one thing from the Spanish flu, it is that humanity can and will survive this pandemic. Society and our government have asked us to take extreme measures to ensure we survive it better than those one hundred years ago did theirs. For the sake of those at the highest risk, along with the healthcare workers who are putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good of all, may we all come together during this time and stand united, at a distance, putting our differences, politics, and critiques of those making the hard decisions on the back burner until we get through this trying time. For it too will eventually come to pass.

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