100 Years of Recovery: The Spanish Influenza

By Natasha Eklund


Living in Canada, I am sure we have all taken advantage of, and been thankful for, the free healthcare. As well, I am sure you all remember the most recent influenza of 2009, the H1N1 virus, which was discovered in the United States. Thankfully, due to modern medicine, vaccines are being created to help battle and prevent viruses from breaking out and creating another tragic pandemic. In recognition of the 100-year anniversary of what was referred to as the most dangerous pandemic, I will be discussing the Spanish Influenza, also known as the Spanish Flu.


This deadly pandemic erupted in spring of 1918 during the last few months of World War I and had killed 50-100 million individuals. Those affected suffered symptoms such as coughing up yellow-green pus, skin turning purple and black, blood spewing from the nostrils–20 percent also got pneumonia. Pregnant women suffered from miscarriages, premature labour, and stillbirths. It was reported that no one, nor any part of the body, was exempt from the influenza. One strange part of this flu was that it affected victims differently; some died slowly over painful days while others died within hours of being infected. In Cape Town, South Africa, five people had died suddenly on a three mile train ride. One of those who died was the train’s engineer, and the train never reached its destination. I can only imagine the fear that every individual faced on a daily basis due to this almost certain death.


The name “Spanish Flu” is actually inaccurate, as the first outbreak was actually in Kansas, not Spain. Spain was merely the first to publicly report the flu symptoms.


One of the interesting aspects of the influenza was that people of all ages were affected at some point, regardless of whether they were healthy or unhealthy. In fact, the highest number of victims were those between the ages of 20 and 40 years of age.


It was the massive troop movement during this time that aided the influenza in spreading so rapidly. American servicemen in March of 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas were reported to have taken ill as they prepared to go overseas for the war. By the end of their five-week training in Spring, more than 1,000 were ill and 46 men had died. It was then reported in France, then in Spain by April. In May, reports of the disease were reported in Greece, Egypt, and Britain. By then, there was no way of preventing this epidemic. The United States and others involved in the war had been communicating amongst themselves about the severity and the quick spreading of the disease, but they had also been concerned with keeping the public’s morale up; therefore, they tried to obstruct knowledge of the disease and withheld information about the soldiers’ illness during the war.


Unlike modern medicine, scientists and doctors had not yet discovered viruses, resulting in no laboratory testing able to detect or characterize the flu. This left them with limited sources of treatment or ways of prevention. Little did the world know that the spring pandemic of 1918 was just getting started. There was a glimmer of relief when, over the summer, the flu seemed to fade, but it unfortunately came back later with much greater force.


Come fall, the flu had returned and it seemed to be taking vengeance on everyone. The health commissioner of New York made an attempt to slow the spreading of the flu by ordering business to operate in shifts with the hope of avoiding crowding in the subways. Not only that, but other attempts to prevent large social gatherings were implemented. Schools, theatres and churches shut down, anyone leaving their houses were advised to wear masks, and keeping good hygiene was encouraged as doctors were unsure how to prevent the spreading. Despite all of these efforts, individuals were still rapidly falling ill. The hospitals became so overcrowded that many schools and some private homes were transformed into makeshift hospitals to try and aid those who were infected. Unfortunately, the flu wiped out so many so quickly that funeral homes were overwhelmed and many had to dig graves themselves for their deceased loved ones. Between the war and this pandemic, it was, indeed, a dark time to be alive.


It only took the Spanish Flu one week to travel across Canada when it arrived late in the summer of 1918. By October, it began to claim 1,000 Canadian lives in a day. To put this in perspective, deaths from fighting on the front were estimated at 100 lives per day. As well, some governments in Canada also closed schools and cancelled public events. Prince Edward Island even attempted to quarantine itself from the mainland, but none of this prevented the disease. The number of deaths continued to grow across Canada. In Montreal, deceased were loaded onto trolleys because they were unable to procure enough hearses to properly transport them.


The City of Edmonton made their decision to take action after ten cases of the flu had been reported. Medical health officers declared that all individuals infected with the flu, no matter how severe the condition, were to be placed under quarantine regulations. From this, a special committee was created to find two city buildings, one southside and one northside, to accommodate the sick. As well, the papers encouraged anyone who was wary of getting the flu to post in their windows a sign reading, “We do not wish any visitors.”


By summer of 1919, the flu epidemic had thankfully come to an end and anyone who had been infected either died or developed immunity. In recognition of the 100-year anniversary of the Spanish Flu, the Legislative Assembly is hosting an exhibit called “In Flew Enza: The Spanish Flu Comes to Alberta.” It runs from October 17, 2018 to January 13, 2019. This exhibit will be going into detail about how 1 in 6 Canadians died from the flu. Of this, 10 percent of Albertans, which was more than 4,000, died in a span of four months. If you’d like to learn more about the impact the flu had on the young province of Alberta, which had only become a province thirteen years previous to the outbreak, be sure to check it out!


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