Lessons of the 1918 flu pandemic

In the dying days of the First World War a second cataclysm struck: the Spanish flu. The 1918 influenza pandemic sapped armies, spread panic throughout the civilian population and racked up a death toll of approximately 100 million.

A century later, it remains one of the deadliest disease outbreaks on record.

Credit: University of Waterloo

In August of 1918, a virulent strain of the virus crossed the Atlantic and started spreading across Canada. It hit Paris on Sept. 27, according to the Star-Transcript. Large numbers of townsfolk experienced chills, aches and pain in the back and limbs, a severe sore throat, fits of sneezing, a flushed face and temperatures between 101 and 104 degrees.

“The passing of Louise Marie Snell came as a shock to many who were not aware of her severe illness,” the newspaper reported. “The entire family had been down with the influenza but were convalescing nicely. Mrs. Snell, however, took a relapse on Thursday and pneumonia developed. She passed peacefully away at the age of 32.”

That was often the way it happened. An influenza attack typically lasted from two to five days. It left victims so miserable they scarcely cared whether they lived or died. If they pulled through, they remained weak, tired and susceptible to complications for weeks. Many came down with pneumonia, acute bronchitis and severe asthma. It was these opportunistic illnesses — not the flu itself — that took their lives.

Advertisement: Toronto Globe 1918

As reports of disease multiplied, panic set in, driving people to quacks with all manner of contraptions and cures.

On Oct. 16, Paris town council ordered the closing of schools, churches, dance halls, moving picture shows, pool rooms and concert halls, in an effort to halt the spread of the outbreak. A week later, it authorized a 30-bed emergency hospital in the armoury, staffed by volunteer nurses and orderlies.

One of the saddest stories of that time was the death of Dr. Alpheus Lovett, a well-liked physician who worked tirelessly to save lives during the outbreak. On Oct. 18, he succumbed.

He was 45 years old with a wife and four young children. According to the Star-Transcript: “Day and night during the whole illness citizens were constantly inquiring about the doctor’s condition. It was felt by everyone that a life so energetic and useful, so devoted to the community and so needed at a time like this must recover. But a gloom came over the community when the news of his death was known.”

By November, the epidemic had begun to taper off. On Armistice Day, relieved Parisians ventured out of their homes at 11 am to celebrate the end of the World War and the abatement of the disease. In the evening, there was dancing on the street, followed by a torchlight procession and fireworks.

Forty-one townspeople died in the pandemic, 10 of them young children. Approximately 1500 Parisians were infected. The province-wide death toll was 8,705.

What makes this relevant today — besides the fact that 2018 is the centenary of the pandemic — is how few lessons we have learned.

Centers for Disease Control

Today we have antibiotics that would have cut the death toll in 1918. But two-thirds of us don’t get a flu shot.

No one can predict when a strain of the flu as lethal and highly contagious as the 1918 variant on the H1N1 virus will return. But instead of preparing, global leaders are impeding our chances of finding an effective remedy by erecting trade barriers and slapping tariffs on a growing list of items. Caught in the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China is the latest Chinese flu vaccine research.

The precautions our medical authorities prescribe are much the same as those recommended by their counterparts a century ago. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze; wash your hands regularly; stay home from work and school if you have a fever or flu symptoms. Yet many of us still don’t. We’re too busy, too preoccupied with other priorities, too willing to take our chances.

May we be luckier than our forebears.

by Carol Goar

Sources: At the Forks of the Grand, Volume II by D.A Smith, PMHS files, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, TVO, Statistics Canada