The Great Flu

There was a little bird
its name was Enza
I opened the window
and in-flu-enza.

-President Woodrow Wilson

In school playgrounds all across America, children were singing the above song in 1918. But no one sang because they were happy. They sang because they had nothing else to do. Nobody—not even the doctors—knew why so many of their classmates were suffering from a new disease called Spanish Influenza.

Many Deaths

When the influenza epidemic hit the United States in 1918 and 1919, more than 500,000 people died. Many of these deaths were among young people, traditionally the most healthy and best able to recover from an illness. But more than 125,000 young people would die. In fact, more than 30 in every 1,000 children between the ages of 5 and 9 would die from influenza. This wasn't the first time the flu appeared, but the 1918 strain was different—it was more deadly than any before.

Most patients that suffered with influenza had symptoms of coughing up blood and having a blue tint to their skin. As their condition worsened, the patients' lungs would fill with blood—causing them to drown.

The Iowa Situation

Iowa was not immune from the influenza. Especially hard hit were places where large numbers of people lived or worked closely together. At the University of Iowa 38 staff and students died from the flu or from pneumonia brought on by it. It was believed that the strict measures taken to control the disease helped contain the spread of the flu at the university. The campus was under strict military police security. Anyone entering or leaving the campus had to show a pass.

At Iowa State College (later named Iowa State University) passes also were required to leave or return to campus. After the college hospital exceeded its capacity, flu victims were housed in the gym. Canvas sheets were used as "walls" between the beds. Fifty-one deaths occurred at Iowa State.

Another Iowa institution was hit hard by the flu. Thousands of soldiers were housed at Camp Dodge near Des Moines in 1918. The camp was used to train soldiers for the war (World War I). When the flu hit in Iowa it spread quickly through the camp. In one 12-hour period on Oct. 8, 1918, 996 new cases occurred at the camp. The Red Cross provided medical personnel to help care for the sick soldiers. On Oct. 10, 1918, there were 245 nurses on duty at the camp. Only six days later the number of nurses at the camp had increased to 598. Before it was all over, more than 10,000 soldiers were hospitalized at Camp Dodge. Deaths numbered just over 700.

The influenza epidemic had begun as World War I (1914-1918) was coming to an end. The four years of war caused deaths of more than 20 million people. Four months of the influenza epidemic killed almost as many people worldwide.

Wearing Masks

People were afraid of the disease. Spanish Influenza was highly contagious. Cities across the United States closed public places to keep people from coming in contact with each other. Cities and small towns in Iowa closed schools and churches. Public gatherings were discouraged or cancelled. Many towns also required people to wear gauze masks over their mouths and noses when they left their homes so that they would be less likely to breathe in the influenza virus.

But what people feared most was that there was no cure. Doctors were helpless to stop the spread of the disease.

Some people advertised treatments—sometimes only lemon juice, turpentine rub, or whiskey—that would cure the disease. Many people who were desperate for a cure tried these treatments, but usually the remedies were useless.

A Vaccine May Help

One remedy that did seem to work in some cases was a vaccine developed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Their vaccine used weakened germs of the disease as a base. These weakened germs were then injected into the body of a healthy person where they would begin to develop antibodies (cells resistant to the disease). Antibodies would help people avoid getting the disease.

Yet, the vaccine often failed to prevent the disease. For people who already had the disease, the vaccine came too late.

By 1920 the greatest influenza epidemic had run its course. Fewer and fewer people were coming down with the disease. But there was still no cure. The disease remained a mystery.

Hog Flu

Although 1920 saw the end of the flu with no cure in sight, an event that occurred in 1918 helped scientists later as they looked for cures and ways to prevent another flu epidemic.

In the fall of 1918 the National Swine Show and Exposition in Cedar Rapids opened. But within a few days some of the swine became sick. Their symptoms appeared to be similar to those exhibited by humans who had the flu! Some people said the hogs had the flu too. Others said that was ridiculous. Hogs couldn't get the flu.

It wasn't until years later (1931) after much experimenting, that scientists proved the pigs probably did have the flu in 1918 and that the swine and human flu strains were related. By studying one, it was hoped doctors could find a cure for the other.

No Cure

For years afterwards, scientists studied the causes and looked for a cure for the flu. But they have never found a cure for the disease. They did learn that the influenza virus changes often, producing new types. The disease is still present today. Modern medicine has developed stronger and more effective vaccines that prevent some strains of the flu. Today millions of people have flu shots every year to prevent another epidemic like the one that occurred in 1918. But there are no guarantees that the world won't suffer another epidemic like the deadly flu of 1918.

Sources

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 9, No. 4 (April 1988). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.

 

 


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