Flu pandemic begins: March 11, 1918
Early on a Monday morning, Albert Gitchell, a cook at the Army base in Fort Riley, Kansas struggles to the infirmary with a bad headache, a very sore throat and a high fever. He thinks it’s a bad cold, but soon other soldiers are streaming into the hospital, complaining of similar symptoms.
By noon, 100 of them are lying in the infirmary’s beds. Over the next few weeks, more than 1,000 men at Fort Riley will be diagnosed with the mysterious disease and 46 of them will die.
Sadly, the outbreak was only getting started. Many soldiers at the base shipped out for Europe that spring to fight in World War I and soon the very contagious strain of flu was spreading through the continent and beyond. That June, more than 31,000 cases were reported in Great Britain alone. But it became known as Spanish influenza because Spain, as a neutral country in the war, didn’t censor news so the public was able to read much more about the devastating impact there.
Just when it seemed the epidemic was ending, it returned with a vengeance that fall. And it was a more deadly version, one that atypically struck down young and otherwise healthy adults instead of infants and old people… Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of extreme fatigue, fever, and headache, victims started turning blue. Blood flowed from their noses and mouths and sometimes their ears. Many suffocated from the fluid in their lungs only a day or two after realizing they were sick.
Epidemics erupted in three port cities: Freetown, Sierra Leone; Brest, France, and Boston, Massachusetts. In Boston, dockworkers reported sick in massive numbers. Suffering from fevers as high as 105 degrees, the workers had severe muscle and joint pains.
As it spread again throughout the U.S., many communities ran short of hospital beds, and community centers and schools were converted into emergency centers, many of them staffed by medical and nursing students because of a shortage of doctors.
Some cities ordered everyone to wear masks, and schools, churches, restaurants and theaters were closed. A few towns even made it illegal to cough or spit in public. Telegraph and garbage men reported sick. The mail piled up as postal carriers failed to come to work.
At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain or prevent its spread, and by the time the pandemic ended in the summer of 1919, more than one out of four Americans had contracted the disease. An estimated 675,000 of them died. Worldwide, at least 30 million people died.
Almost 90 years later, in 2008, researchers announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia to develop.
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