It has been 102 years since we experienced a pandemic in the U.S. like the one we are experiencing now.
It came in January 1918, and by July it appeared to vanish. Yet, the virus came roaring back in the fall with 185,000 people dying of it in October 1918 alone. Then a third wave arrived in the winter of 1919 which eventually petered out by summer. In total, an estimated 675,000 people died from the “Spanish Flu” in the U.S. over this period.
Although called the “Spanish Flu,” largely because Spain was the only country to publicly report on the disease, this flu had its origins in Haskell County, Kansas. The suspected pathway was of avian origin likely transferred to pigs and ultimately humans. There is still a major migratory flyway over Haskell County and a good share of pig farms in the area. These animal/human disease pathways exist and it is estimated that 75 percent of new infectious diseases are from animal origin.
One hundred years is ample time for one’s memory to fade on this historic pandemic experience. It may also be easy to look back with a sense of superiority and confidence given modern day advances — our collective knowledge of viruses, therapeutics, public health, sanitation and science in general are light-years ahead of where we were in 1918.
All modern advances aside, are we behaving any differently than the people did in 1918/19? There were 675,000 deaths from the flu over the course of about 1.5 years in 1918/19. We are not yet a year into this pandemic and there have been over 255,947 (as of Nov. 20) with recent daily death counts between 1,000 and 2,000 during the past couple of weeks in the U.S.
Just listing numbers leaves one numb. Behind every number is a story of great loss and sadness that so many people are experiencing. And, the numbers do not reflect the mounting uncertainty and fear as death rates accelerate.
I wonder as we approach this holiday season, what advice would folks living in 1918/19 offer to us right now as we are living at the height of our pandemic? Would it be too much to ask folks to be cautious, to wear a mask in public, to avoid gatherings, to protect those who are most vulnerable?
And, what advice might we offer to those in the future who will quite likely be facing their own pandemic? Don’t politicize public health advice. Don’t spread false information. Understand that this will last longer than you anticipate, but it won’t last forever. Be patient.
"We study the past to understand the present; we understand the present to guide the future," William Lund said.
You have the power to make things better or to make things much worse.