10 misconceptions about 1918 flu, the ‘greatest pandemic in history’
EDITOR’S NOTE: Before the coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last week by the World Health Organization, the last such event that hit eastern Kentucky was the Spanish flu pandemic, when 150 Letcher County residents lost their lives during a three-month period in 1918, beginning in October and ending in December of that year.
By RICHARD GUNDERMAN
Pandemic: It’s a scary word.
But the world has seen pandemics before, and worse ones, too. Consider the influenza pandemic of 1918, often referred to erroneously as the “Spanish flu.” Misconceptions about it may be fueling unfounded fears about COVID-19, and now is an especially good time to correct them.
In the pandemic of 1918, between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, representing as much as 5% of the world’s population. Half a billion people were infected.
Especially remarkable was the 1918 flu’s predilection for taking the lives of otherwise healthy young adults, as opposed to children and the elderly, who usually suffer most. Some have called it the greatest pandemic in history.
The 1918 flu pandemic has been a regular subject of speculation over the last century. Historians and scientists have advanced numerous hypotheses regarding its origin, spread and consequences. As a result, many harbor misconceptions about it.
By correcting these 10 misconceptions, everyone can better understand what actually happened and help mitigate COVID- 19’s toll.
1. The pandemic originated in Spain
No one believes the so-called “Spanish flu” originated in Spain.
The pandemic likely acquired this nickname because of World War I, which was in full swing at the time. The major countries involved in the war were keen to avoid encouraging their enemies, so reports of the extent of the flu were suppressed in Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and the U.S. By contrast, neutral Spain had no need to keep the flu under wraps. That created the false impression that Spain was bearing the brunt of the disease.
In fact, the geographic origin of the flu is debated to this day, though hypotheses have suggested East Asia, Europe and even Kansas.
2. The pandemic was the work of a ‘supervirus’
The 1918 flu spread rapidly, killing 25 million people in just the first six months. This led some to fear the end of mankind, and has long fueled the supposition that the strain of influenza was particularly lethal.
However, more recent study suggests that the virus itself, though more lethal than other strains, was not fundamentally different from those that caused epidemics in other years.
Much of the high death rate can be attributed to crowding in military camps and urban environments, as well as poor nutrition and sanitation, which suffered during wartime. It’s now thought that many of the deaths were due to the development of bacterial pneumonias in lungs weakened by influenza.
3. The first wave of the pandemic was most lethal
Actually, the initial wave of deaths from the pandemic in the first half of 1918 was relatively low.
It was in the second wave, from October through December of that year, that the highest death rates were observed. A third wave in spring of 1919 was more lethal than the first but less so than the second.
Scientists now believe that the marked increase in deaths in the second wave was caused by conditions that favored the spread of a deadlier strain. People with mild cases stayed home, but those with severe cases were often crowded together in hospitals and camps, increasing transmission of a more lethal form of the virus.
4. The virus killed most people who were infected with it
In fact, the vast majority of the people who contracted the 1918 flu survived. National death rates among the infected generally did not exceed 20%.
However, death rates varied among different groups. In the U.S., deaths were particularly high among Native American populations, perhaps due to lower rates of exposure to past strains of influenza. In some cases, entire Native communities were wiped out.
Of course, even a 20% death rate vastly exceeds a typical flu, which kills less than 1% of those infected.
5. Therapies of the day had little impact on the disease
No specific anti-viral therapies were available during the 1918 flu. That’s still largely true today, where most medical care for the flu aims to support patients, rather than cure them.
One hypothesis suggests that many flu deaths could actually be attributed to aspirin poisoning. Medical authorities at the time recommended large doses of aspirin of up to 30 grams per day. Today, about four grams would be considered the maximum safe daily dose. Large doses of aspirin can lead to many of the pandemic’s symptoms, including bleeding.
However, death rates seem to have been equally high in some places in the world where aspirin was not so readily available, so the debate continues.
6. The pandemic dominated the day’s news
Public health officials, law enforcement officers and politicians had reasons to underplay the severity of the 1918 flu, which resulted in less coverage in the press. In addition to the fear that full disclosure might embolden enemies during wartime, they wanted to preserve public order and avoid panic.
However, officials did respond. At the height of the pandemic, quarantines were instituted in many cities. Some were forced to restrict essential services, including police and fire.
7. The pandemic changed the course of World War I
It’s unlikely that the flu changed the outcome of World War I, because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected.
However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.
8. Widespread immunization ended the pandemic
Immunization against the flu was not practiced in 1918, and thus played no role in ending the pandemic.
Exposure to prior strains of the flu may have offered some protection. For example, soldiers who had served in the military for years suffered lower rates of death than new recruits.
In addition, the rapidly mutating virus likely evolved over time into less lethal strains. This is predicted by models of natural selection. Because highly lethal strains kill their host rapidly, they cannot spread as easily as less lethal strains.
9. The genes of the virus have never been sequenced
In 2005, researchers announced that they had successfully determined the gene sequence of the 1918 influenza virus. The virus was recovered from the body of a flu victim buried in the permafrost of Alaska, as well as from samples of American soldiers who fell ill at the time.
Two years later, monkeys infected with the virus were found to exhibit the symptoms observed during the pandemic. Studies suggest that the monkeys died when their immune systems overreacted to the virus, a so-called “cytokine storm.” Scientists now believe that a similar immune system overreaction contributed to high death rates among otherwise healthy young adults in 1918.
10. The world is no better prepared today than it was in 1918
Severe epidemics tend to occur every few decades, and the latest one is upon us.
Today scientists know more about how to isolate and handle large numbers of ill and dying patients, and physicians can prescribe antibiotics, not available in 1918, to combat secondary bacterial infections. To such common-sense practices as social distancing and hand-washing, contemporary medicine can add the creation of vaccinations and anti-viral drugs.
For the foreseeable future, viral epidemics will remain a regular feature of human life. As a society, we can only hope that we have learned the great pandemic’s lessons sufficiently well to quell the current COVID-19 challenge.
This article, distributed by The Associated Press, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https:// theconversation.com/10-misconceptions-about-the-1918-flu-the-greatest-pandemic in-history-133994.
THURSDAY, MARCH 21, 1940
Kentucky Governor Keen Johnson has signed a new bill that raises the consumption tax on whiskey to $1.20 per gallon, up from $1.04. The bill becomes law 90 days after June 12.
An amendment to the Hatch Act that would bar some 500,000 state employees from engaging in political campaign activities passed the Senate on Monday, 58 to 28, and now heads to the House for another vote. The bill is an extension of the original Hatch Act, which was passed in 1939 and bars employees in the executive branch of the federal government from engaging in political activity.
The Whitesburg Woman’s Club has presented large posters of The Ten Commandments to Whitesburg High School and Whitesburg Grade School.
The Millstone School ended its school year Friday, with the fewest number of eighth-grade students in the school’s history graduating — four.
The Leeds Theatre has purchased an advertisement in The Mountain Eagle offering reserved seating for the hit movie, “Gone With The Wind,” in hopes that Letcher County residents will ride the L&N passenger train to the theatre’s home in Winchester, Kentucky for at least one of the seven days it will be shown there, beginning April 6. The ad says that in addition to floor seating, the Leeds Theatre has “165 good seats in colored balcony for colored patrons only.”
Spencer Tracy stars in the historical drama “Stanley and Livingstone,” showing Sunday and Monday at the Bentley Theatre in Neon.
I.D. Back is among eight students who graduated last Friday from the eighth grade at the Blackey Grade School.
A Sandlick coal miner died Monday in the Hazard hospital, apparently of blood poisoning he suffered after injuring a finger while loading coal about 10 days ago. The victim, L. Thornton, was 52.
Two-thirds of the citizens of Inez, the county seat of Martin County, have signed a petition asking for incorporation of the town. The proposed corporate limits would embrace one square mile with the new courthouse as its center.
THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 1950
Bob Bowman, 39, former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants, and Chicago Cubs, is the new player-manager for the Jenkins Cavaliers professional baseball team. The Cavaliers play in the Mountain States League. Bowman, who played professional baseball in Jenkins in the early 1930s in the old Lonesome Pine League, comes back to Letcher County after being released by the Cubs from their Bluefield team in the Appalachian League. Bowman won 17 games and lost three last season at Bluefield, which won the 1949 pennant. Spring training for the Cavaliers begins April 15. The regular season starts April 30.
The Jenkins Kiwanis Club celebrated its 11th anniversary March 16 with a banquet in the basement of the Jenkins Methodist Church.
A retired L&N Railroad employee who had seen a lot of Kentucky history being made died Saturday in the Fleming hospital. John Arnett, who had lived in Neon for the past 36 years, was 84. Among the historical moments Mr. Arnett experienced was the January 30, 1900 shooting of Kentucky Governor William Goebel, who nearly fell into Mr. Arnett’s arms when he was shot in Frankfort, near the Old State Capital. Goebel died four days later. His assassin was never identified.
Three teen-aged boys were arrested Monday and charged with petty larceny after they allegedly broke into the Fleming High School and stole money from a Coke machine.
The Letcher County colored schools from Haymond, Fleming, and McRoberts joined Dunham School last Friday for a poetry, spelling, and story contest for students in grades one through eight.
New cars featuring Kaiser-Frazier’s new 115-hp “Supersonic” engine and “HydroMatic” transmission are on sale at Robinson Motor Sales at Potters Fork.
THURSDAY, MARCH 24, 1960
All of Letcher County will begin observing the same time — Eastern Standard Time — after 2 a.m. on Sunday, April 3. That’s when an Interstate Commerce Commission ruling putting the eastern half of Kentucky into the Eastern Time Zone will take effect. Officially, the Eastern Time Zone as it now stands cuts Letcher County in half, with the part of the county east of Thornton on Eastern Time and the part west of Thornton on Central Standard Time. Whitesburg and its environs have observed Voluntary Eastern Time since the summer of 1957. The lower end of the county has continued to observe Central Standard Time but will join the Eastern Time observers next month.
. Fleming-Neon High School hopes to move into the modern new building on the hill early this coming week, Principal Roy Reasor said today. The school’s enrollment is 385. The new building is of concrete block and brick veneer and cost about $200,000 to build. It contains 14 classrooms and a library in the two-story rectangular building, which building that burned in February 1959.
The case of Letcher County Deputy Sheriff Alonzo Sizemore in the March 5 fatal shooting of Manuel Bentley at Neon will go before the Letcher County Grand Jury when it convenes April 11. Bentley, a 25-year-old coal miner, was wounded in an attempted arrest at the American Legion at Neon. He died March 11.
Formal installation of the Rev. Robert S. Owens Jr. as pastor of Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church of Whitesburg will be held Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Sixty-nine students from Letcher County are enrolled at Morehead State College for the spring semester.
“The striped bass, which isn’t a bass at all but a descendant of an ocean perch, is becoming a favorite of fishermen in most of the big lakes,” writes Larry Caudill of Blackey in his “Let’s Go Fishing” column.
THURSDAY MARCH 19, 1970
The recent increase in pensions for retired members of the United Mine Workers came under criticism this week from Miss Josephine Roche, longtime trustee of the pension fund. Miss Roche expressed fear that boosting the monthly pensions from $115 a month to $150 monthly might endanger the entire UMW Welfare and Retirement Fund.
A spokesman for Letcher Manufacturing Company said the firm will merge with one of the nation’s largest furniture makers in the near future. He said the merger with the unidentified large company would allow Letcher Manufacturing to hire 200 new workers.
SP/4 Mark T. Witt, of Whitesburg, has been presented the Air Medal for participation in more than 25 aerial missions over hostile territory in support of counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. Witt, a member of the 18th Infantry Division, also has received the Army Commendation Medal.
Army First Sergeant Guy R. Collins, son of Mack Collins of Neon, was assigned as a first sergeant with the 20th Engineering Brigade in Vietnam January 24. His wife, Dorothy, lives in Salina, Kan.
THURSDAY MARCH 20, 1980
In what is seen as a victory for landowners, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that will greatly restrict the usage of the broad-form deed. If the Senate approves, the bill will require that coal underlying land covered by a broadform deed be mined by the method most used when the deed was signed.
Four members of the Jenkins City Council met to screen applications and hire a new city clerk in apparent violation of the state’s “sunshine” open meetings law. Neither The Mountain Eagle nor the other two councilmen were notified of the “special” meeting.
Mrs. Thelma Sergent Napier, senior vice president of the Bank of Whitesburg, has retired after 47 years of work at the bank. She was the bank’s second employee. The late Herman Hale was the first.
Harry M. Caudill of Whitesburg, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, has been named for induction into the UK Alumni Association’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 21, 1990
A Mountain Eagle editorial calls upon citizens to tell the state senators to vote against House Bill 758, which would make Kentucky “a leading candidate to become the nation’s garbage dump.” The editorial cites events in Lee County, Virginia, where a 200-acre hollow will be filled with trainloads of garbage hauled in from New York City. “Senator Kelsey Friend and Senator Charles Berger, each representing a portion of Letcher County, should join forces to bring about the defeat of the bill before eastern Kentucky is rendered absolutely uninhabitable by the greedy who want to come in and dump their crap upon us,” the editorial continues. “Concerned citizens should give Friend and Berger a call.”
Southwestern Virginia is clean and southeastern Kentucky is littered because Kentucky won’t enforce the law, Joe Wells of the Kentucky River District Health Department says. State agencies are partly responsible for Kentucky’s litter problem because they won’t help enforce litter laws, Wells said.
First Lady Barbara Bush will deliver the commencement speech at Southeast Community College in Cumberland. Southeast will be the only community college where Mrs. Bush will speak this spring.
Final testing dates in Whitesburg for employment by the U.S. Census Bureau are March 22, March 23, and March 29.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 15, 2000
Four people charged in an alleged drug operation pleaded innocent in U.S. District Court in Pikeville. Wilford Henry Niece and Melissa A. Niece of Van and Jackie Blair of McRoberts all will stand trial on May 24. Curtis “Stoney” Cornett Sr. of Van will stand trial May 1. The four were charged as a result of a four-month investigation by the Kentucky State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Twenty-five homes along Long Branch will get sewer lines as a result of a grant and loan combination to Whitesburg from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project will also open up the southwest side of the Whitesburg bypass to development by putting sewer lines on that side of the four-lane highway for the first time.
Hassie Breeding Helton, Jeremiah correspondent for The Mountain Eagle for a quarter of a century, has put an end to her reporting. In a farewell message, she says, “It is with sadness that I give up being the Jeremiah newswoman but my failing health will not allow me to continue writing at this time. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing each and every word and will always treasure the friends I have made through my column.”
Gasoline prices soared a record 12 cents per gallon in the last two weeks as rising crude oil costs hit Americans hard at the pump. The average retail price of gasoline nationwide was about $1.59 per gallon, up 11.99 cents from Feb. 25.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 17, 2010
Workers in two Letcher County deep mines will be affected by Massey Energy Co.’s announcement it has agreed to buy privately held rival Cumberland Resources Corp. for $960 million in cash and stock. Massey called Cumberland a good fit with its strategy of capitalizing on growing Asian demand for high-priced metallurgical coal, a key ingredient in making steel.
. Letcher County residents and businesses who haven’t had access to broadband Internet may have the opportunity to connect to a wireless high-speed system in the near future. Randall Caudill, who operates Whitesburg-based Mega Communications, says he has a plan to address the broadband problem by using transmitters attached to three radio towers his company owns in Letcher and Harlan counties.
Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Michael P. Smith is at Fort Dix, N.J. in preparation for deployment to serve in either Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom. He is a member of the 2123rd Transportation Company based in Richmond. Smith, a battle noncommissioned officer, has 12 years of military service. He is a 1997 graduate of Letcher High School.