With concerns of a new flu pandemic, a look back at an old one
This alert is based on a National Archives online exhibit titled "Deadly Virus, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918," at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html. This site offers high-res downloads of documents and images from that time.
True or False?
The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people than died in World War I.
Hard as it is to believe, the answer is true.
World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.
The plague emerged in two phases. In late spring of 1918, the first phase, known as the "three-day fever," appeared without warning. Few deaths were reported. Victims recovered after a few days. When the disease resurfaced that fall, it was far more severe. Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death.
The plague did not discriminate. It was rampant in urban and rural areas, from the densely populated East coast to the remotest parts of Alaska. Young adults, usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children. The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.
It is an oddity of history that the influenza epidemic of 1918 has been overlooked in the teaching of American history. Documentation of the disease is ample, as shown in the records selected from the holdings of the National Archives regional archives.