The United States had been engaged in World War I for less than one year when the nation found itself in the midst of another crisis in January 1918 – the Spanish Flu, also known as La Grippe. That month, the first cases of what would become a flu pandemic that ultimately killed millions around the globe were reported in Haskell County, Kansas.
There is some debate over where exactly the pandemic started. Some people believe it originated in France, and others claim possibly China or Vietnam, but many studies point to the United States and particularly southwest Kansas as the flashpoint. The outbreak lasted a mere 15 months, but it quickly spread around the world, killing between 50 million to 100 million people, including nearly 700,000 Americans.
In January 1918, a local physician in Haskell County, Kansas noticed that an unusual number of people had recently fallen seriously ill in his community. The doctor was so concerned that he even contacted the U.S. Public Health Service. Men who had been exposed to the influenza in Haskell County headed to Camp Funston in central Kansas for military training, and, on March 4, 1918, the first soldier known to have the Spanish Flu was reported sick. Camp Funston was a massive Army base, and the disease spread very quickly among the troops. Thousands of soldiers fell ill and 38 died. Infected troops spread the flu to other military camps around the U.S., and 24 of the 36 large bases experienced major outbreaks.
As tens of thousands of troops became ill, the deadly flu crept into civilian communities across the country. During the same time, infected soldiers shipping overseas brought influenza with them to Europe and around the world. The particular strain of flu spread very easily, infecting cells in the upper respiratory tract as well as the lungs.
The 1918 flu wasn’t taken seriously as a major health threat at first. Despite the huge numbers of sick people, not many died at first. The sickness didn’t receive a huge amount of attention until it hit Spain and the King became ill. This is why the pandemic is often called the Spanish Flu.
As 1918 wore on, the disease continued to spread, and it grew deadlier. In August an extremely aggressive strain of the flu appeared in Switzerland, and by September it was afflicting Army troops in the U.S.
Camp Devens, outside of Boston, was the first U.S. base to be hit by the deadly second wave. In one day, over 1,500 men were reported sick. Doctors and nurses fell ill, too, after being exposed to the flu. At one point, the camp was averaging 100 deaths a day. The spread of the disease was exacerbated by the U.S. government. To keep morale high during the war, Congress had passed the Sedition Act, that forcefully came down on anyone who printed or even spoke poorly of the government or military during WWI. If convicted, offenders could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. While influenza, especially the deadly second wave, spread to pandemic proportions, public health officials began to lie to the public, not wanting to upset Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
Even as troops and civilians in the U.S. died, health officials claimed in newspapers that the disease was deteriorating and wouldn’t pose a threat for much longer. Their lies cost many lives.
On September 28th, 1918, the city of Philadelphia scheduled a Liberty Loan parade. Doctors urged city officials to cancel the parade because of the quick-spreading flu, but officials refused to budge. Hundreds of thousands of people packed Philadelphia’s streets to watch the parade, unknowingly spreading the disease. Nearly 12,000 Philadelphians died from the flu in the six weeks after the parade, including 759 in one single day.
Deaths piled up around the U.S. and the world. San Antonio, Texas saw 53% of its population fall ill. Death could come very quickly, in some cases only a few hours after the first symptoms appeared. Small towns and even larger cities ran out of coffins for the dead. As more people became sick, Americans began to panic and became distrustful of each other. The sick were avoided if possible. A man in North Carolina recalled, “We were actually almost afraid to breathe. The fear was so great that people were actually afraid to leave their homes…afraid to talk to one another.”
A third wave of the deadly Spanish Flu started in January 1919, but it was short-lived and had mostly disappeared by the spring. The war had ended in November 1918, and world leaders gathered in France to hammer out a deal for lasting peace. President Wilson fell seriously ill while overseas, likely contracting the disease that had decimated the world. A young aide to President Wilson even died in Paris from the flu.
Even though we now know much more about medicine 100 years later, there are still questions about the 1918 epidemic. Why was the second wave of the flu so deadly? Why did so many young people, who generally have strong immune systems, die?
And how did the disease originate in the first place? Historians believe that the location of Haskell County, Kansas may provide clues. The area is on the major migratory pathway for 17 different bird species, and scientists now know that bird flu can infect hogs, which were raised in Haskell County at the time. Human influenza can also infect hogs, so scientists believe that the combination of bird flu, infected hogs, and humans possibly created an especially deadly virus in 1918.
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