Flu pandemic of 1917-18 offers lessons

October 27, 2018 GMT

Regular readers of The New Mexican’s Opinion pages are familiar with the popular feature, “The Past 100 Years.” The past few weeks, the stories from 1918 have been particularly poignant as New Mexico, like the world, is caught up in the battle against the infamous flu pandemic that left millions dead around the world.

Then-U.S. Sen. Albert Fall, in a tough re-election fight for the Senate, had to stop campaigning to bury two of his children, including his only son, who died in the outbreak. Theaters, churches and schools were shut to prevent the spread of germs. The obituary columns were long, featuring people who had died of both flu and complications of pneumonia, with the occasional bit of good news showing up when sick people were reported as back at work.

All of this going on at home while, in Europe, troops continued to fight during the waning days of World War I. These were trying times for the world at large indeed, with waves of the disease wreaking havoc before finally subsiding in the summer of 1919.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the pandemic was so severe that from 1917-18, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women. There were high death rates in previously healthy people, including those between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, which was unusual because flu typically hits the very young and the very old more than young adults. The CDC states that in 1918, deaths were estimated at 50 million deaths worldwide and some 675,000 in the United States.

Today, the CDC says efforts to prevent another pandemic continue, with scientists tracking virus strains around the world, seeking to identify any with potential to cause mass casualties.

In 2018, we are fortunate that doctors and scientists have developed a vaccine against flu. Even a pandemic of a deadly strain likely would kill fewer people, both because of vaccines and other advances. We have antibiotics to treat secondary infections and anti-viral drugs that can used against the flu itself.

Flu shot clinics have been taking place throughout the past few weeks, and if you missed them, it is simple to stop by a drug store and receive a vaccination or get one at your doctor’s office. Vaccines save lives, despite the puzzling ignorance of many in public life who question them — and not just the flu shot, but the miracle vaccinations for polio, measles and mumps.

This election season, three GOP candidates for governor have raised questions about the wisdom of vaccinations, including one who is actually a medical doctor in Oregon. (He is calling for weaker vaccination laws.) Of course, anti-vaxxers are not found only on the cultural right. Ignoring science on vaccinations is a delusion that affects liberals as well. Santa Fe parents in certain parts of town or certain schools opt out of vaccinations at rates high enough to endanger the protection of all.

Whether seeking protection against flu or measles, science has given us tools to keep people safe and prevent another pandemic.

Someday, not this year or even soon, another flu strain will develop with the ability to kill broadly.

When that happens, we must be prepared. Stay healthy. Get a vaccination. Oh, and wash your hands frequently and avoid spreading germs.

Unlike in 1918, we know better how to prevent a pandemic. That’s good for what ails us.