The Influenza and Pneumonia Epidemic of 1918-1919

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The Influenza and Pneumonia Epidemic of 1918-1919

In the ten months between September 1918 and June 1919, 675,000 Americans died of influenza and pneumonia. When compared to the number of Americans killed in combat in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined- 423,000- it becomes apparent that the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 was far more deadly than the war which it accompanied. (Crosby, 206-207) The United States and the rest of the world had been exposed to such epidemics in the past, but never at such a severe cost in human life.

The influenza epidemic came in two waves. The first wave, in the spring of 1918, took far fewer victims than the second. Americans stricken with the flu that spring wondered at the intensity of its symptoms and its incredible contagion. Doctors noticed that the virus seemed to spread more quickly than it ever had before that year, but did not realize how quickly it would reach epidemic proportion. As summer approached, the disease appeared to have satisfied its appetite for new victims.

However, the second, deadlier wave of influenza was just about ready to unleash itself on the world, and it did so quickly. By August 1918, the Surgeon General of the Army reported that the death rate from disease for American soldiers was almost 2/3 lower than the annual rate for civilian males of the same age. At the end of the month, the Spanish influenza virus mutated, and "epidemics of unprecedented virulence" exploded in the same week in three port cities thousands of miles apart: Freetown, Sierra Leone, Brest, Belgium, and Boston, Massachusetts. (Crosby, 37) It is still unknown whether this was the result of three appearances of a single mutation or three different simultaneous mutatio...

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...wed that it had learned from its experience in 1918. Flu epidemics in the thirties and the fifties never approached the magnitude of the 1918-1919 disaster. Research across the world eventually isolated and identified the virus which causes influenza and the microorganisms which so often accompany it and cause deadly complications like pneumonia and strep and staph infections. The American public health system is one of, if not the, best in the world today at educating its citizens and preventing the spread of communicable disease. Historians can only speculate about what would have happened if people had applied the knowledge of today to the devastating epidemic of so many years ago.

WORKS CITED

Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. Epidemic and Peace, 1918. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Hoehling, A.A. The Great Epidemic. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961.

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