A boy in Philadelphia lies in bed with a fever of 104 degrees as his mother dabs a cool cloth on his head in effort to bring down his fever. A nurse scrambles through her hospital in London trying to find intubation bags as a young woman struggles for air, her respiratory system completely shut down. A soldier in the U.S. army begins to feel worn down, his body racked with coughing fits, not from war, but from something much deadlier and unseen. These are the tell-tale signs of the pandemic that is known as the “Spanish Flu”.
The influenza virus is a potentially lethal illness that can infect birds as well as humans and other mammals. The virus can evolve rapidly, resulting in new outbreaks of the disease. There are two major categories of the influenza virus: A and B. About 95% of influenza cases are caused by type A. Symptoms of the virus includes fever, sore throat, coughing/sneezing, and muscle aches. The disease also incubates for one to five days after exposure and may be transmitted before symptoms are recognized. Influenza is spread through the air in the form of droplets formed when people cough, talk, or sneeze. Though not usually the cause of death, influenza does tend encourage secondary bacterial infections, like pneumonia, which is often the direct cause of death during flu outbreaks. In rare cases, the virus can also trigger an overreaction of the immune system, kind of like an allergic response, which causes massive damage to the lungs. It is known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and it quickly leads to death. In contrast to common flu victims, who are often very young or old, ARDS occurs most often in relatively young people with strong immune systems. The most devastating occurrence of a mutated influenza virus in history was the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.
The 1918 pandemic of the Spanish flu was an unusually deadly pandemic that spread worldwide, killing an estimated 50-100 million people. The exact origin of the disease is unknown, however. Theories exist as to where the disease originated. In Europe, many stated that it began in Spain, hence the name. Spain was neutral during World War I, which was occurring in Europe, and as such, they had no wartime censorship to keep its health problems secret. The Spanish claimed it came from France. Every country had its own theory and none can be proven. However, the first recorded case of the flu was at Haskell County, Kansas, in March of 1918. Scholars maintain that Fort Riley is the most likely site of origin. During this time, World War I was ravaging Europe and thousands of troops were being deployed to assist in the war effort. The transportation of troops provided a gateway for the flu virus to spread to Europe. By May, the flu had been established in Europe, particularly in Brest, France, which happened to be “the single largest port of disembarkation for American troops.”
The flu traveled with ease throughout Europe, passing from army to army. By July of 1918, 700 people had died of the flu in London and 475 of pneumonia. Hamburg had a death toll of 214. Thousands more in Germany, Copenhagen, Switzerland, and the rest of Europe were ill with the disease. Reports of mortality records from London and Paris showed that nearly one-half of the dead were between 20-45 years old, not typical of flu victims. 9 It was later learned that a large percentage of the deaths among the fairly young were because of ARDS. Despite the threat of the disease and the ever increasing death rates, the flu wasn’t considered a reportable disease. World War I played a huge part in why it wasn’t reported. More people, both laymen and medical professionals, thought the war was more interesting.
Just as it spread like wildfire to and throughout Europe, the Spanish flu also began to spread worldwide. Because of World War I, thousands of ships were carrying people between Europe and the rest of the world. It was the perfect way to spread the flu. Within 4...
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