Spanish Flu

Flu season always freak me out a bit. I get the shot every year, so I don’t really worry about that. It’s the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic that weirds me out. And the fact that people don’t remember it. It’s as if people forgot about WW1 or WW2. It killed that many people, 50 to 100 million across the globe. Think about it. In 1919 that was up to 5% of the world’s population. And, like AIDS, it overwhelmingly affected young, healthy adults. Almost all the deaths were late teen to late thirties. Death would occur within 72 hours, often in 24 hours, even less. You could wake up in the morning healthy and be dead by midnight. That was not uncommon. Death came horribly…you’d drown in your own lungs. The lungs themselves would harden and respiration would get more and more difficult and then they’d fill up with fluid and you’d drown. Literally drown. You turn a ghastly greenish hue as death approached. It was a flu like no other. It was the worst pestilence to sweep the planet since the Black Plague. Towns were decimated. Villages in Alaska were annihilated. In Philadelphia the dead were wrapped in shrouds and left on the sidewalks for the disposal teams. The city ran out of coffins. A troop train full of healthy recruits that left Georgia arrived in New York City with virtually all aboard dead, dying or desperately ill. And that was just this country. The stories from China and India are beyond belief. The only disease in human history that rivals the Spanish flu in sheer morbid power was the Black Plague. And this was less than a hundred years ago. There are people still alive today who remember it. But nobody asks them.

So strange it’s so forgotten now. Perhaps deliberately. No one wants to think about it. People love to think about asteroids, Fukushima, Ebola. No one wants to think about a new Spanish Flu.

And that Spanish Flu, they’ve discovered via autopsies on the frozen dead in Alaska, was an H1N1 virus. So we know what that type of flu is capable of. We were lucky in 2009, it was a mild version. It was an H1N1 pandemic, to be sure, and infected a couple hundred million people (I know I had it), but killed only a couple ten thousand. Same age group that was felled by the Spanish Flu, that is healthy adults, and with the same virulence, killing within 24-48 hours. It showed us it was still capable of annihilating a hundred million, just not that time. It’s come around again this year, though. Perhaps we’ll be hearing more about it. Or perhaps we’ll be lucky again.

And get the other flu shot too, the annual flu. The CDC estimates that 5-15% of all human beings on the planet come down with a respiratory tract infection from an influenza virus every year, and typically a quarter to a half million people worldwide die from it. In a bad year it might kill a million. But then the H1N1 never killed a hundred million before 1919 either. So you never know. One of these years some ungodly awful flu will sweep the world, and the unvaccinated will become desperately ill and begin dying, perhaps in huge numbers. Maybe they’ll be healthy young adults again, or maybe they’ll be the senior citizens. Maybe it’ll be children. Maybe it’ll be everybody. Who knows, there’s no way to predict. But the vaccinated will attend a lot of funerals, and the unvaccinated will hide in their homes, wondering if they’re next.

Get a flu shot.

Mass grave in Labrador, 1919.

Mass grave in Labrador, 1919.

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