Living in a military camp alongside 50,000 fellow soldiers in closely packed quarters, under the haze created by dust storms and the debris of burning manure, you might think conditions could not get much worse. But you’re wrong. One bland bowl of chili dealt out by the mess cook, Private Albert Gitchell, and the next morning you feel tired, hungover. You have a pounding in your head and a feverish sweat.
It seems like the flu, but then the fever grows worse. You can’t stop coughing and you’re starting to turn blue. The next morning, you are dead. Nine thousand and ninety nine other soldiers will die in the same way, poisoned by Private Gitchell with a little bug that historians now call “the mother of all pandemics”: the Spanish Flu.
Gitchell was quarantined, but too late. In these final months of WWI, the US government government was so busy sending shipping out infantry to finish the job that no one stopped to wonder at what a coughing, feverish infantry it was. By 1918, more than 10,000 highly infectious American recruits were being sent to the overcrowded European trenches, every month.
Spanish Flu spread from one army to the next, killing more soldiers than trench warfare. Then it caught with soldiers’ wives and lovers, their children, the milkman, anyone who spoke to or shook hands with a military man. The disease was especially and unusually fatal for healthy young adults –nearly half of the 1918 pandemic’s victims were between 20 and 40 years old. Eventually, a full third of the world’s population was infected, according to estimates by the US Center for Disease Control.
It could happen again. The swine flu and avian flu viruses are direct genetic descendants of the 1918 virus, and contemporary governments don’t seem much more capable of handling the crisis: When Spanish Flu arrived in Philadelphia, USA, public health officials thought they could save their city with secrecy, and scratched influenza off of the list of reportable diseases. In 2002, the Chinese government did about the same thing by concealing the original SARS outbreak from both the World Health Organization (WHO) and from its own people. Press censorship and suppression of free speech meant that Chinese civilians had no clue about the extent of the outbreak. But whispers and rumors led to panicking and riots, and the disease spread anyway.
The first rule of a pandemic is often to not talk about the pandemic, so you probably won’t know what is coming until it’s too late. But when vaccinations are useless, defense is impossible and escape futile, do you even want to know what you’re in for?
Blog post courtesy of Marika Lysandrou