History of Spanish Flu and Comparison to Swine Flu

Sarah (my daughter) and I have been following the development of the swine flu. Last week I was thinking how ridiculous it was that the US and world leadership was reacting last weekend with a “pandemic alert.” At that time, I did think everyone was overreacting a bit and I also mentioned that my reading passion is juvenile non-fiction. I LOVE to read juvenile non-fiction: biographies, history, medical books, etc. I especially like reading about medical issues, problems, diseases, pandemics, etc. I’ve read about every flu epidemic that has been recorded and decided to do some research to compare past flu pandemics with what’s currently going on. I’m actually thinking now that we’re in for a huge amount of trouble, but I don’t think it’s going to be right now… It’s likely that we’ll see the worst of it this fall. I’ll explain this when comparing the current situation to the flu epidemics in the past. Hopefully you’ll find this useful for school as you talk about current events and history and how everything works together so that we will eventually see prophecy fulfilled.

In late 1917 or early 1918, it is believed that the “Spanish flu” originated on a hog and chicken farm in Haskell County, Kansas. There were three young men from that county went into military service and were shipped to Camp Funston, Kansas. Now remember that these camps held around 56,000 men – that’s a lot of people to get a germ and take it with them when they go wherever – in this case “wherever” was around the world for World War I. The young men arrived in camp from Feb 28 to March 2. By March 4, the cook reported in sick and it’s likely that this was the first case of Spanish flu. Well, by the end of March, thousands were sick in Kansas, but young men HAD to be shipped around the world for the war. They went mostly to Europe. Ask your children why. Show them the map and remind them that this was probably the worst flu epidemic in history because before that time, when people had the flu, they didn’t really have the ability to transport it around the globe. What happened in the early 1900s that enabled them to travel quickly around the globe? (air travel) Why were they traveling even though they were sick? (war) Since deaths from the flu are common and the death toll wasn’t a whole lot more than average at that point, even though they were elevated, there was no need to quarantine the camp. Didn’t anyone care about these men? Sure, but people got sick and died. It is a normal part of life and there was a war to win – sick or not. What is similar / different that would make today’s flu epidemics worse / not as bad? (travel is more accessible / people can go around the globe and expose others with no difficulty / we also know more about germs now and take more precautions)

Anyway, most of the young men from Kansas were shipped to France. Suddenly, by April, the flu was spreading through the French and Italian armies as well. It soon reached Spain and here’s where it got it’s name of the Spanish flu. This is important… Because of the fact that the US and most European newspapers were CENSORED from sharing with the public the truth of what was really going on, no one had been allowed to share or report the numbers of cases of flu. The newspapers didn’t want the Axis powers to know how sick our troops were so they did NOT say how many men were sick with the flu. This would have given the enemy an advantage to know when and where to attack if they knew about the sick men. But Spain had remained neutral in the war and they had no reason to censor the fact that the flu was running rampant among their ranks. When they started reporting the high numbers of sick and dying, it became known as the Spanish flu – even though thousands more already had the disease in the US. Thus the flu became forever known as the Spanish Flu.

The flu continued to spread through the spring and summer of 1918 – which is strange for influenza because it normally dies down after about March/April. That flu was a very resilient strain, however, and it continued to spread even until the summer. Finally, in August, the authorities declared that the epidemic was over. The flu was dead. The problem was that it was not dead. It was simply changing its clothes a little bit.

I’ll stop here a second and expand on that analogy. Let’s say that viruses are on a team and they are all wearing red jerseys and blue pants. Your immune system is the referee and it knows that it’s supposed to block all the invaders (or the team) with red jerseys and blue pants. If one of the players changes shirts and starts wearing a green shirt, your “referee” will recognize that it’s a trick and stop that player along with the others. But let’s say that one or two of the players hops in with a green shirt and yellow pants. Then it becomes more difficult for the referee to know that it should stop that invader because it doesn’t recognize the invader in time. From year to year, if a virus has mutated a little bit and simply “changed shirts,” it’s easy for your immune system to adapt, but every so many years – like the years with horrible flu outbreaks, you actually have an entire SHIFT (not just a small mutation) of the virus where it changes so remarkably that human immune systems cannot fight the invader and many more people die than they normally would. This is what happened with the 1918 flu epidemic. There was a HUGE change of the viral “clothing” and the humans who were infected could not fight off the invaders because their immune systems didn’t recognize the enemy.

One of the problems with this new swine flu is that it’s a combination of a swine flu, bird flu, and human flu. It is definitely wearing some strange clothes and our bodies have not built up an immunity to it. I spoke with someone today who has a friend who works at the Centers for Disease Control. He said two things that I wanted to share. (1) The media is telling us about all the cases they KNOW about and that have been officially reported. You have the numbers of OFFICIAL deaths, but this strain of influenza has been mutating and infecting humans all winter so really there are a lot more people who have been exposed than they could ever officially report. (2) The CDC is currently working on a flu vaccine that will kill ALL influenza proteins rather than a particular strain of influenza. Now personally, the ONE year we got a vaccine was the ONE year we got the flu so we will not do that again, but this man said that it would be years before they would have this type of vaccine available for those who choose to take it (and I think it will be one of those they try to require for admission to public school, by the way…) But anyway, back to the story of 1918…

By August 1918, the authorities thought they were at the tail end of the most horrible flu they had ever seen. They were wrong. The flu bug simply changed clothes and came back more virilent than ever because it now mutated even more in order to get past the referees (human immune systems). NOW people really had a problem! The flu in the spring was nothing. This new mutated form of the flu caused millions of people to be sick and hundreds of people died each day in large cities. The flu spread like wildfire during that flu season and mutated again the following spring so that it caused even more problems. It’s estimated that 1/3 of the world’s population at that time had the Spanish flu and between 50 million and 100 million of those died. That’s a HUGE number of people!!! I don’t say this to scare anyone, but if you want to give your child perspective on the number of people that died during the Spanish flu, you might want to mention that the current population of the United States is about 306 million.

So where are we right now? I personally think that we’re in the same phase where the people were in the spring of 1918. This is really not a huge deal – or threat – right now. That’s the key – right NOW. I don’t mean to sound insensitive or harsh about the deaths that have already occurred or the number of people sick, but as I stated the other day, hundreds of thousands of people die from influenza each year. We’re at the end of flu season and we aren’t seeing a lot of difference right now except that this is obviously a very contagious strain of the flu from human to human contact, it’s such a new strain that our immune systems might not know how to fight it, and the big difference from earlier in the week – it is now in ten countries. If this particular strain of flu continues to find new hosts (the way to prevent that is quarantine / isolation of anyone exposed – that’s the danger of a pandemic because total isolation of ALL carriers is almost impossible), then it will mutate and I think we’re looking at a very dangerous situation for next fall.

Viruses and bacterias truly are very fascinating creations and I’m just trying to focus on that aspect of it. It interests me. If you would like to do some more study with your children on the topic of influenza right now, I would highly recommend the following books. I bought these a long time ago used, but they are fabulous books and I’m sure you should still be able to find a copy. Read them aloud or let your children read them alone. I’ve listed all the information and the reading levels.

Influenza: The Next Pandemic? by Connie Goldsmith (Twenty-First Century Books, 2007) – about a fifth/sixth grade reading level

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 by Virginia Aronson (Chelsea House Publishers, 2000) – about a fourth grade reading level – very interesting!

I hope you enjoyed the little history lesson. If you have other books about influenza or pandemics that you’ve really enjoyed, please share those. I’d be interested in reading others on this topic if someone has one that they really liked a lot. If other questions come up – such as why did God create viruses / bacteria, etc. – then I would recommend some of the resources from Answers in Genesis. They address this issue well. Remember, all things were created good and for the glory to God. I have a whole other discussion about viruses and how/why they change that I’ll try to post on my website in a few days. I hope this discussion of the history of the Spanish flu and comparison to the current situation has given everyone a little bit better understanding about why people are freaking out. I think it’s wise to be cautious, but the true problem is going to come this fall. And meanwhile, remember that the Lord says we should not live in fear because our hope lies in Him!

In His Perfect Love,
Sonya Haskins


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