|Rochester, NY, Public Health Poster
If you think this year’s flu has been bad, 100 years ago, 1918, the flu was much worse. One fifth of the world’s population was infected, 15 percent of the infected died, 3 percent of the population. The estimated 50 million deaths was four times the deaths from the Great War. Within months it killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.
Scientists disagree where the 1918 flu originated. On 4 March 1918, came the first reported case that led to a breakout infected hundreds of soldiers at Ft. Riley, Kansas, and Camp Funston, a satellite post. Flu vectors pigs and poultry were farmed in the camp. Modern transportation systems made it easier for soldiers, sailors, and civilian travelers to spread the disease all over the world. These “three-day fever” infections peaked in June and were seldom fatal.
The virus mutated during the Summer of 1918. In August simultaneous breakouts occurred in Brest, France; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Boston, Mass. This new mutation was extraordinarily deadly, particularly for young adults with strong immune systems that massively overreacted, causing rapid respiratory failure followed by pneumonia. In addition the virus was similar to the 1889 flu, so most people over 29 years old had some antibodies. The final climactic cataclysmic battles of the Great War were raging. By October, 25 percent of soldiers fighting on both sides were infected. Almost 47,000 of the 116,000 WWI U.S. military fatalities were from the flu. Tragically, 30,000 U.S. soldiers died before they even got to France.
|Influenza Isolation War, Camp Bowie, TX
In the United States 675,000 died, most of them during ten weeks in the fall of 1918. This was more deaths than 40 years of AIDS. The flu brought life to a standstill, emptying city streets, closing churches, pool halls, saloons, and theaters. The virus swept the globe except for a few islands that enforced strict quarantines. Medical treatment did not go much beyond aspirin and bed rest.
The 1918 H1N1 virus mutated to a less virulent strain, fading out after a third wave in 1919. The virus lives on today. All cases of influenza A worldwide, except bird flu cases, are caused by descendants of the 1918 virus.
[Editor's Note: An article on the influenza pandemic we published in 2013 has a list of online articles on the illness and its impact on the military during the war.]