Flu, by Any Name, Is Serious Business
by M.L. Faunce

Like the Titanic's plunge to the ocean floor, the Spanish Influenza of 80 years ago reminds us how suddenly life can go very wrong.

When the ominous-sounding avian flu - apparently now in check - popped up in Hong Kong recently, I got to thinking about influenza. It's often the season between the holidays and spring that this curse comes upon us. In fact, the flu has little to do with winter and more to do with the fact that we are all cooped up together indoors where germs can easily spread.

When I called my brother in California a few days back and found him down with the flu, my thoughts went back to the only time I ever saw my dad sick in bed. I was about eight. To see this tall, big man - who usually talked and walked so fast that you had to run to keep up with him - sick in bed with the flu, vaporizer steaming away, was an astounding sight. It was so odd it was almost comical. But neither for him nor my brother, who usually lets little stop him in his tracks, was flu a laughing matter. Father and son both said it this way: I feel like I've been hit by a truck.

Besides meeting up with a truck, my brother had all the usual symptoms. You know the ones: You feel dizzy and warm and your head is reeling; your knees are weak and your head starts pounding; what begins innocently enough as a drippy nose turns to razor blades in your throat, congestion in the chest and a cough that sounds like a Gatling gun. Like a hangover, flu first makes you think you're going to die, then afraid that you won't.

But more seriously, the flu is nothing to sneeze at. It should never be taken lightly, especially when a child, a senior or those with special health problems come down with symptoms. The great influenza epidemic of 1918 struck and killed young and healthy as eagerly - perhaps more eagerly - as the weak. But nowadays, vaccines developed annually to combat each new strain of these rapidly mutating viruses "significantly reduce chances of infection" according to medical experts.

Before those vaccines, flu swept the world like a firestorm out of control in a deadly epidemic - indeed pandemic. The deadly Spanish Influenza, like this year's "bird flu," came from birds, but not so directly. That influenza was transmitted to humans by swine infected by the birds.

It wasn't Spanish after all, it now turns out. It actually began in the United States on the morning of March 11, 1918, at Camp Funston, Kansas, when a company cook reported to the infirmary with typical flu-like symptoms. Reports show that by noon, 107 soldiers were sick. Within two days, 522 people came down with the flu, and within a week, every state in the country reported the illness. Following the trail of soldiers fighting the first great world war, the misnamed Spanish Flu spread beyond our borders and throughout the world.

That plague claimed 25 million people in one year during the waning days of World War I. In the United States, it killed over one-half million people. In Baltimore, 148 of every 1,000 people died. In Washington, D.C., 109 died for every 1,000.

My grandmother, a young woman of 27 with the lyrical name of Marie Antoinette, the mother of four small children and pregnant with her fifth, died on November 5, 1918, in Washington, D.C. On that same day, the headlines read: "11 die of flu in District, 37 new cases reported. End of epidemic in sight." It was not soon enough.

Eighteen months after the disease of the century appeared, "the flu bug vanished and has not shown up again," said newspaper accounts. Before it was finished, the flu of 1918 proved how deadly a rare influenza can be.

That is, until research biologists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center discovered remains of the Spanish flu virus in a tissue sample of a soldier who died in 1918. From this sample - and from the still-frozen bodies of victims buried under the permafrost in the northernmost islands of Norway - scientists hope to learn more about the deadly virus.

I know of my grandmother only from the exotic sounding disease she died of and a photo of her with the same quizzical, Mona Lisa expression sometimes shared by my sister and niece. And from my recent discovery of an elegy written by my grandfather: "Dearest Marie, fare thee well; Thou hast gone to heaven to dwell."

Now 80 years later, as scientists look back to 1918, we learn from the disease that killed more in its day than shipwreck or war. And remember its victims.

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Volume VI Number 3
January 22-28, 1998

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