If anyone was still alive today that lived through the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, they might recognize a lot of similarities with this day’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Like the current coronavirus, the deadly flu of 1918-19 moved slowly to the United States beginning in major metropolitan areas and spreading, slowly and eventually, to Watertown even as local news media here in 1918 said there was little chance it would get to such an isolated area.
As the Great War in the Europe began winding down, a far deadlier scourge was to claim more lives — 10 times as many — than World War I.
The dreaded “La Grippe” infected 28% of all Americans, with an estimated 675,000 succumbing to the Spanish flu during the pandemic. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in the European Theater, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic would go on to kill more people than any other disease outbreak in history. Current estimates put the death toll at 21 million worldwide, but some epidemiologists have revised that number in recent years to be as high as 50, to perhaps 100 million deaths.
Pandemics are nothing new in history, and their long record across the ages and continents has much to teach us about how best to handle the current outbreak. The pandemic of 1918-19 was hardly the world’s first influenza pandemic. Throughout history, there have been others: the Africa outbreak of 1510, Asia flu of 1580, yellow fever gripped the United States in 1647, England/Ireland epidemic of 1688, the London outbreaks in 1847-48 and again in 1889-90, according to History.com.
But 1918 topped them all.
It began mildly, with a spring wave in March and April. In fact, it was so mild some physicians wondered at the time if this disease actually was routine influenza. Early cases in Kansas and in military camps spread throughout the U.S. were all but ignored.
Until the second wave. In fall of 1918, the flu hit hard.
Soldiers returning from the war brought it back to the U.S. with them. It first arrived in Boston in September of 1918. The virus killed almost 200,000 in October alone. In November, as people celebrated Armistice Day with parades and parties, the Spanish influenza was tightening its grip on the U.S.
Dubbed “Spanish influenza” because Spain was reportedly hit particularly hard early (8 million deaths in that country), the disease likely originated elsewhere. Maybe China, France, Britain — even the U.S have been considered in some studies. What is known is a rare genetic shift of a strain of H1N1 avian influenza virus started the whole thing, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Those who are at risk include: older adults and individuals with underlying health issues such as asthma, HIV, heart disease and diabetes and other diseases that compromise the immune system, the CDC states.
And the 1918 flu targeted young adults. Those between ages 20-40 accounted for most of all deaths. The over-50 age group was far less affected. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the actual flu disease was not responsible for the majority of deaths associated with the influenza in 1918-19. It was the secondary bacterial pneumonia that got so bad pathologists who performed autopsies found the lungs comparable to victims of poison gas, according to an article, “What the Spanish Flu Debacle Can Teach Us About Coronavirus” from Politico.
What we are experiencing now around the world must look a lot like 102 years ago.
The flu that winter of 1918 was beyond imagination. Millions were infected. Thousands died. The pandemic affected everyone. With one-quarter of the U.S. and one-fifth of the world infected with the influenza, it was impossible to hide from the sickness.
Looking back on old newspaper articles during the outbreak of flu in 1918-19 plays out like a frightening vision — a monster movie with no superhero around to help.
A Watertown News headline dated Oct. 14, 1918 states, “Spanish Flu Is Increasing — Cases Number 62.”
In that same article, “The churches, schools, movies and theaters are complying with the order to stay closed until further advices are received. While there is an increase of cases in Watertown, people should not become alarmed and start worrying as that is the worst thing possible.”
But the worry continued; and the local newspaper did its best to calm its readers.
“During the prevalence of Spanish influenza one should keep a cool head and a right attitude of mind,” an Oct. 28, 1918 Watertown News article states. “Do not worry over the matter. It is said that people can deceive themselves into thinking they have any disease on the calendar and doubtless many of them have thought themselves into their graves.”
If the Spanish influenza didn’t ravage Watertown, fear did.
“Whilst the disease held away in Watertown, people were on the ragged edge of fear and unrest despite all that could be said in way of encouragement. It baffled the skill of physicians, who knew little of the cause and less of the treatment,” according to a December 16, 1918 article in the Watertown News.
Today, we are continuing to learn about this new COVID-19 disease. Pathologists, scientists, doctors — they’re all putting to use a century of medical journals, new lab findings, and real-time life-or-death clinical trials in China and Italy to come up with a cure, a vaccination, a hope.
Never before has it been easier to share information. To collaborate with colleagues, and commiserate with friends and family around the globe. We are all connected like no other time in history. That’s one edge of the sword.
The flip side is we are all connected like no other time in history. What happens to an old man in China, ripples to an Italian mother of five, ripples to a Seattle employee in the fish market who had not a care in the world yesterday.
We’re in this together. There is a map called history. Let’s learn and live.
The Watertown Daily Times wants to thank Ken Riedl and Tom Schultz for their dogged research on this subject found on the pages of The Watertown News. The archives of The Watertown Daily Times from that era were either incomplete or too fragile to handle.