The day was September 11, and the Whitehouse announced to the public that the nation was under siege.
The year was not 2001, but 1918; 95 years ago today, the Spanish flu hit the nation’s capital. Before the end of it’s horrific run, the pandemic would claim the lives of 50 million people world wide, possibly even more than the black death. 25% of the United States population would be afflicted with the disease from March of 1918 to June of 1920.
The eye of the Spanish flu’s perfect storm was the first World War; trench warfare and the vast number of soldiers moving across Europe caused the virus to spread rapaciously – the first reported case of the Spanish flue in the US was in Fort Riley, KS. Soldiers returning from the battlefield brought the virus home from abroad.
This particular flu virus was different and puzzling to health professionals at the time. Those who were hit the hardest were the nation’s healthiest adults, not the infirm or infants and the elderly, the segment of the population traditionally the most vulnerable to influenza. Once a person became afflicted, they were non-ambulatory within a short period of time. If they were lucky, they died within 24 hours.
Those who weren’t so lucky fell victim to their own hyper-vigilant immune systems; antibodies flooded their systems and landed in only one part of the body, creating what medical experts call cytokine storms. Many patients died by either drowning in their own body fluids, or bleeding to death while losing the lining of the intestines.
Although WWI soldiers brought the Spanish flu to the United States when they returned from Europe, ironically they may help render the disease impotent should another Spanish flu-type virus emerge. In the late 1990s, the Chief of the Medical Pathology Department of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology requested to study the frozen lung tissue of two frozen World War I soldiers felled by the illness nearly a century ago. Click here to read more about this fascinating research.