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High drama about a lethal virus

'The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It'

by Gina Kolata

November 19, 1999
Web posted at: 12:11 p.m. EST (1711 GMT)

When we think of plagues, we think of AIDS, Ebola, anthrax spores, and, of course, the Black Death. Influenza never makes the list. But in 1918 the Great Flu Epidemic felled the young and healthy virtually overnight. An estimated forty million people died as the pandemic raged.

Stories of The Century: Flu Epidemic

In "Flu," Gina Kolata, an acclaimed reporter for "The New York Times," unravels the mystery of this lethal virus with the high drama of a great adventure story. From Alaska to Norway, from the streets of Hong Kong to the corridors of the White House, Kolata tracks the race to recover the live pathogen and probes the fear that has impelled government policy. She delves into the history of the flu and previous epidemics, profiles the experts hot on the trail and the amateurs woefully misguided, and details the science and the latest understanding of this mortal disease.



The Plague Year

This is a detective story. Here was a mass murderer that was around 80 years ago and who's never been brought to justice. And what we're trying to do is find the murderer. -- Jeffery Taubenberger, molecular pathologist

When the plague came, on those chilly days of autumn, some said it was a terrible new weapon of war. The plague germs were inserted into aspirin made by the German drug company Bayer. Take an aspirin for a headache and the germs will creep through your body. Then your fate is sealed.

No, the plague came in on a camouflaged German ship that had crept into Boston Harbor under cover of darkness and released the germs that seeded the city. Boston, after all, was where the plague started. There was an eyewitness, an old woman who said she saw a greasy-looking cloud that floated over the harbor and wafted over the docks.

No, it was started by Germans who slipped into Boston Harbor on U-boats and then sneaked ashore, carrying vials of the plague germs with them. They let the germs loose in theaters and among crowds gathered for those interminable Liberty Bond rallies. Lieutenant Colonel Philip S. Doane, head of the Health Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, said so, and he certainly was in a position to know. It was on page one of the "Philadelphia Inquirer."

Soon the plague was everywhere. And no one was safe.

The sickness preyed on the young and healthy. One day you are fine, strong, and invulnerable. You might be busy at work in your office. Or maybe you are knitting a scarf for the brave troops fighting the war to end all wars. Or maybe you are a soldier reporting for basic training, your first time away from home and family.

You might notice a dull headache. Your eyes might start to bum. You start to shiver and you will take to your bed, curling up in a ball. But no amount of blankets can keep you warm. You fall into a restless sleep, dreaming the distorted nightmares of delirium as your fever climbs. And when you drift out of sleep, into a sort of semi-consciousness, your muscles will ache and your head will throb and you will somehow know that, step by step, as your body feebly cries out "no," you are moving steadily toward death.

It may take a few days, it may take a few hours, but there is nothing that can stop the disease's progress. Doctors and nurses have learned to spot the signs. Your face turns a dark brownish purple. You start to cough up blood. Your feet turn black. Finally, as the end nears, you frantically gasp for breath. A blood-tinged saliva bubbles out of your mouth. You die -- by drowning, actually -- as your lungs fill with a reddish fluid.

And when a doctor does an autopsy, he will observe your lungs lying heavy and sodden in your chest, engorged with a thin bloody liquid, useless, like slabs of liver.

They called the plague of 1918 influenza, but it was like no influenza ever seen before. It was more like a biblical prophecy come true, something from Revelations that predicted that first the world was to be struck by war, then famine, and then, with the breaking of the fourth seal of the scroll foretelling the future, the appearance of a horse, "deathly pale, and its rider was called Plague, and Hades followed at its heels."

The plague took off in September of that year, and when it was over, half a million Americans would lie dead. The illness spread to the most remote parts of the globe. Some Eskimo villages were decimated, nearly eliminated from the face of the earth. Twenty percent of Western Samoans perished. And no matter where it struck, the virus went after an unusual group -- young adults who generally are spared the ravages of infectious diseases. The death curves were W-shaped, with peaks for the babies and toddlers under age 5, the elderly who were aged 70 to 74, and people aged 20 to 40.

Children were orphaned, families destroyed. Some who lived through it said it was so horrible that they would not even talk about it. Others tried to put it behind them as another wartime nightmare, somehow conflating it with the horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas. It came when the world was weary of war. It swept the globe in months, ending when the war did. It went away as mysteriously as it appeared. And when it was over, humanity had been struck by a disease that killed more people in a few months' time than any other illness in the history of the world.

When we think of plagues we think of strange and terrible illnesses. AIDS. Ebola. Anthrax spores. And, of course, the Black Death. We worry about horrifying symptoms -- pustules, or fountains of blood gushing from every orifice. Or young men, who had had the bodies of gods, reduced to skeletal figures, hobbling down the street on withered limbs, leaning on canes, shivering with cold. Today we worry about germ warfare -- a new virus made of a combination of smallpox and anthrax or smallpox and Ebola. Or we worry that a terrifying new disease is brewing somewhere, in a hot zone, and that it is poised, prepared, with the disruption of ancient forests, to break out and kill us all.

But influenza never makes the list of deadly plagues. It seems so innocuous. It comes around every winter and everyone gets it sooner or later. There is no good treatment once a person becomes ill, but no matter. Nearly everyone gets over it, few are the worse for the experience. It is just an inconvenient illness that inflicts, at most, a week or so of misery. Influenza is not supposed to be deadly, at least for young adults, who have little reason to fear death or disease.

Even its name, "influenza," hints at its usual pattern of coming around each winter. "Influenza" is an Italian word that, one hypothesis has it, was coined by the disease's Italian victims in the middle of the eighteenth century. Influenza di freddo means "influence of the cold."

Flu also, however, seems unavoidable. It is spread through the air and there is little that can be done to prevent being infected. "I know how not to get AIDS," says Alfred W Crosby, a historian of the 1918 flu. "I don't know how not to get the flu."

And yet perhaps because the flu is so familiar, its terrors in 1918 were all the more dreadful. It is like a macabre science fiction tale in which the mundane becomes the monstrous.

When the illness was first observed, doctors were reluctant even to call it the flu. It seemed to be a new disease, they said. Some called it bronchopneumonia, others called it epidemic respiratory infection. Doctors suggested it might be cholera or typhus, or perhaps it was dengue fever or botulism. Still others said it was simply an unidentified pandemic disease. Those who used the term "influenza" insisted on enclosing it in quotation marks.

One way to tell the story of the 1918 flu is through facts and figures, a collection of data whose impact is numbing and whose magnitude is almost inconceivable.

How many became ill? More than 25 percent of the U.S. population.

What about servicemen, the very young and healthy who were the virus's favorite targets? The Navy said that 40 percent of its members got the flu in 1918. The Army estimated that about 36 percent of its members were stricken.
How many died worldwide? Estimates range from 20 million to more than 100 million, but the true number can never be known. Many places that were bludgeoned by the flu did not keep mortality statistics, and even in countries such as the United States, efforts at tabulating flu deaths were complicated by the fact that there was no definitive test in those days to show that a person actually had the flu. But still, the low end of the mortality estimates is stunning. In comparison, AIDS had killed 11.7 million people through 1997. World War I was responsible for 9.2 million combat deaths and around 15 million total deaths. World War II for 15.9 combat deaths. Historian Crosby remarks that whatever the exact number felled by the 1918 flu, one thing is indisputable: the virus "killed more humans than any other disease in a period of similar duration in the history of the world."

How lethal was it? It was twenty-five times more deadly than ordinary influenzas. This flu killed 2.5 percent of its victims. Normally, just one-tenth of 1 percent of people who get the flu die. And since a fifth of the world's population got the flu that year, including 28 percent of Americans, the number of deaths was stunning. So many died, in fact, that the average life span in the United States fell by twelve years in 1918. If such a plague came today, killing a similar fraction of the U.S. population, 1.5 million Americans would die, which is more than the number felled in a single year by heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS, and Alzheimer's disease combined.

But the raw numbers cannot convey the scenes of horror and misery that swept the world in 1918, which became part of everyday life in every nation, in the largest cities and remotest hamlets.

Some tell of their personal epiphanies. Historian Crosby, a friendly bear of a man with snow-white hair and a short bushy beard, was at Washington State University one day, gazing at a wall of world almanacs. On a whim, he picked up an almanac from 1917 and looked up the U.S. life expectancy. It was, he recalls, about fifty-one years. He then turned to the almanac from 1919. The life expectancy was about the same. Then he looked at the 1918 almanac. The life expectancy was thirty-nine years, he says. "What the hell happened? The life expectancy had dropped to what it had been fifty years before." Then he realized what the explanation must be. It was the influenza epidemic, the flu his own father had lived through but had not spoken about to Crosby. "When you talk to people who lived through it, they think it was just their block or just their neighborhood," Crosby noted. The flu's enormous, almost unthinkable impact somehow had escaped attention. Crosby applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the 1918 flu and soon became the world's expert on that almost forgotten period of history.

No one knows for sure where the 1918 flu came from or how it turned into such a killer strain. All that is known is that it began as an ordinary flu but then it changed. It infected people in the spring of 1918, sickening its victims for about three days with chills and fever, but rarely killing them. Then it disappeared, returning in the fall with the power of a juggernaut.
In retrospect, medical experts talk of the two waves of the 1918 flu. The first was banal, and easily forgotten. No one mentioned plagues or germ warfare when the influenza epidemic first arrived. But when it came back, in the second wave, it had become something monstrous, bearing little resemblance to what is ordinarily thought of as the flu.

The earliest traces of the first wave of the 1918 flu are lost in the sands of time, a warning that only afterward seemed dire. The disease seemed trivial at the time, coming as it did in the midst of the disruptions and terrors of war. But for one of the first towns to be hit by the flu, the disease was not easily dismissed -- not because it was so deadly but because it was so infectious.

It was February and the tourist season was in full swing in San Sebastián. The sunny town on the northern coast of Spain seemed a world apart from the dismal, dreary fighting just over the border in France. San Sebastián in the winter of 1918 was a place where you might forget the trenches and the wet, cold, muddy battles. You could escape the talk of mustard gas, that deadly green haze, that horrible new German weapon of war. You could find respite in a country that was still unaligned, where the days were warm and the nights soft and fragrant. You might forget that the rest of Europe was bogged down in an exhausting war to end all wars.

Then the flu came to town. It was nothing alarming -- just three days or so of fever, aches, and pains. But it certainly was contagious. It seemed that nearly everyone who was exposed to the disease became ill about two days later. And the disease seemed to strike young, healthy adults, often sparing the old people and the children, who usually are the first to be felled by influenza.

What to do? If the world knew about the flu in San Sebastián, the tourist season would be finished. Who would want to go on vacation only to be laid up with the flu? Maybe the illness could be hushed up, the town's officials reasoned. Yet the word spread -- San Sebastián was a place to be avoided.

At nearly the same time, some soldiers were becoming ill, although there was as yet no clear pattern of the disease's spread. Influenza arrived in March in the 15th U.S. Cavalry traveling to Europe.

Two months later, it seemed that everyone was getting sick. In Spain, eight million people were ill, including King Alfonso XIII. One-third of Madrid was sick with the flu, forcing some government offices to close. Even the trams stopped running. And this time, Spain was not alone -- the first wave of the flu had spread widely.

The troops called it "three-day fever," according to some who suffered from it. One, Sergeant John C. Acker of the 107th Ammunition Train, 32nd Division, American Expeditionary Force, writing from France that April, said: "They started calling it the 'three-day fever' here, but couldn't camouflage it with a name when it runs its course in a week or more. It hits suddenly and one's temperature nearly chases the mercury thru the top of the M.D.'s thermometer, face gets red, every bone in the body aches and the head splits wide open. This continues for three or four days and then disappears after considerable perspiration, but the 'hangover' clings for a week or two."

But in the rest of the world, the illness came to be called the Spanish flu, to Spain's consternation. After all, the other countries of Europe, as well as the United States and countries in Asia, were hit too in that spring of 1918. Maybe the name stuck because Spain, still unaligned, did not censor its news reports, unlike other European countries. And so Spain's flu was no secret, unlike the flu elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the scope of the epidemic remains unclear. There were no requirements in those days to report cases of influenza -- that became a practice in the United States only after, and as a consequence of, the second wave of the 1918 flu. And there was no reason in those days of war to keep track of what seemed like a minor illness. Reports on the flu's reaches were sporadic, reflecting mostly the practices of organizations such as prisons, the military, and some industries, which simply recorded absentees. There was no systematic attempt to track an epidemic.

There are records noting that at the Ford Motor Company more than 1,000 workers called in sick with the flu in March. In San Quentin prison, 500 of 1,900 prisoners became ill in April and May. On March 4, the flu came to Camp Funston (now Fort Riley) in Kansas, a training camp for 20,000 recruits. That month and the next, it also arrived at more than a dozen other Army camps, but no eyebrows were raised. After all, colds and flu were to be expected in training camps where thousands of men were brought together, mingling and passing viruses among themselves.

In April 1918, the epidemic appeared in France, laying waste to British, American, and French troops stationed there, as well as the civilian population. The next month, it was in England, where King George V got the flu. The epidemic crested in England in June; at the same time, it cropped up in China and Japan. In Asia, it also was called the "three-day fever" or, sometimes, "wrestler's fever."

Not surprisingly, the epidemic affected the war effort. Soldiers trying to fight in World War I were laid up by the flu in such numbers that some commanders complained that the disease was hindering their ability to fight.

King George's Grand Fleet could not even put to sea for three weeks in May, with 10,313 men sick. The British Army's 29th Division had planned to attack La Becque on June 30, but had to put off the operation because so many of its men were sick with the flu.

German General Erich von Ludendorff, the leader of the country's acclaimed offense, complained that the flu, or the Flanders fever, as the Germans called it, was thwarting his battle plans. It was not enough that the fighting men were hungry and cold and wet, trying to slog their way through fields of mud that could swallow a tank. Now there was this flu which, Ludendorff said, was weakening his men and lowering their morale. The flu, he added, contributed to the failure of his July offensive, a battle plan that nearly won the war for Germany.

He also groused about his staffs complaints about the flu. "It was a grievous business having to listen every morning to the Chiefs of Staffs recital of the number of influenza cases, and their complaints about the weakness of their troops."

Yet although much of the world fell ill that spring, there remained large areas that were untouched. Most of Africa and almost all of South America and Canada had no flu epidemic. And as summer arrived, even the countries that were hardest hit had a reprieve. The flu seemed to vanish without a trace.

Copyright © 1999 Gina Kolata

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