Ahead of the storm inexorably marching like a tidal wave of death lay quiet rows of beautiful homes. Inside were grandmothers and infants, photo albums and hamster cages, brand new pickups, and pop-up campers. Behind the storm lay shattered homes, shattered families, shattered lives, shattered bodies. What could be worse than that? To answer that question join me in Kansas at a military outpost called Camp Funston. It is March 4th, 1918 and the flu pandemic of 1918 begins. Tens of millions of deaths later, it was and remains a mystery.
It began with a relatively mild initial assault on March 4, when the first reported case occurred at Camp Funston, Kans. Within four months, the virus had traversed the globe. The flu sickened millions but killed relatively few, and in the tumult of World War I, the first wave seemed pretty mundane.
No one knew it at the time, of course, but flu viruses are notoriously unstable– “genetically labile,” as one researcher puts it. Set one flu virus beside another, and the two may trade genes, a process called re-assortment. If this re-assortment produces a virus that closely resembles one of its parents, it is said to have undergone antigenic drift. On rare occasions, this scrambling can be dramatic. The virus becomes a kind of Frankenstein virus so different from existing strains that the human population has no immunity to it.
In August 1918, the mild virus apparently re-assorted into something positively deadly. Outbreaks caused by the new variant exploded almost simultaneously in three far-flung locations: France, Sierra Leone and Boston. The flu struck with a ferocity that shocked doctors, who feared this strange new pathogen might be an airborne version of the Black Death. Patients died awash in blood and gore, literally drowning as fluid-filled their lungs.
The virus rocketed to the farthest points of the globe. From September 1918 through March 1919, it killed 33,387 people in New York City, just over 1% of the city’s population. In some Alaskan villages, the death toll topped 50%; in one, Teller Mission (now Brevig Mission), 85% were dead within a week.
One of the great mysteries of 1918 centers on who was killed by the virus. Even ordinary flu will cause deaths among the very young, the very old and people with a weakened immune system. The 1918 virus did kill within these groups, but it seemed to have a special passion for the young and hardy, ages 25 to 34, those typically most able to weather the flu.
Rumors flew of strange influenza-like diseases affecting animals, even moose, according to the pandemic’s chronicler, Alfred W. Crosby Jr. One rumor turned out to be true–disturbingly so for anyone familiar with the subsequent history of influenza research and the recent Hong Kong outbreak. Farmers in 1918 discovered that something was making their pigs very sick, with high fevers and bad coughs. No such pig flu had ever been noticed before 1918, but every fall thereafter an influenza-like illness attacked the nation’s hog population. In 1928 a researcher from the Rockefeller Institute, Richard E. Shope, went to Iowa to investigate the phenomenon, and in 1930 he became the first scientist to isolate an influenza virus. Copies of it are stored today in laboratories around the world.
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