Another Unhappy Centennial


Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in this 1918 file photo (AP Photo/National Museum of Health)

Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in this 1918 file photo (AP Photo/National Museum of Health)

The centennial of the end of World War I was observed with all due ceremony, even if President Trump embarrassed himself and the United States by his churlish behavior. World War I killed perhaps 16 million people, counting both soldiers and civilians. A nearly unimaginable number.

But it wasn’t even the worst disaster of 1918. The worst disaster was the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, which killed as many as 50 million people, three times as many as the war did. The pandemic killed about 675,000 people in the United States alone, lowering U.S life expectancy by an astonishing 12 years.

It was called the “Spanish Flu” at the time, but the attribution is wrong. Spain was neutral in 1918, and had no press censorship, so stories about the epidemic came out of Spain. The disease itself didn’t. To this date, medical historians don’t agree on where the disease originated. The National Institute of Health says, “Many questions about its origins, its unusual epidemiologic features, and the basis of its pathogenicity remain unanswered.” That’s concerning.

The Spanish Flu came in three distinct waves.

And the second wave was by far the most deadly. It’s not enough time for the virus itself to evolve, creating three different “strains.” At leat not as we understand viral evolution. Medical science has some ideas, but nothing yet really confirmed. That’s concerning, too.

It hit young people, aged 20 – 40 years old, especially hard. Flu typically hits the very young and the very old more than young adults. The elderly, those whose immune systems are less effective, died too, but not at the same rates.

Something about the Spanish Flu triggered an extreme immunological over-reaction in an otherwise healthy young adult. t wasn’t the HiN1 virus that killed people; it was the patient’s own immune system. Medical science still doesn’t know why.

Echoes of the 1918 pandemic in the form of H1N1 strains are still echoing down the years. Could one of those strains somehow acquire the terrifying pathogenic powers of the 1918 strain (or strains)?

That’s concerning.

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