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The 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosy/ Ring-a-Ring o’Rosies” goes “Ring around the rosy, a pocketful of posies ‘ashes, ashes’ we all fall down!” or “Ring-a-ring o’rosies, a pocket full of posies, ‘a-tishoo! a-tishoo!’, we all fall down!”. Little do a lot of people know, this “cute” little rhyme is about the 1348 bubonic plague, more often known as the Black Death. The line “ring around the rosy” refers to the rose red rash in the shape of a ring found on the skin as a common symptom of the illness.

“Posies” refers to the pockets and pouches of sweeter smelling herbs that citizens of the time carried with them because there was a thought that the plague was spread through bad odors. Physicians of the time actually wore long concealing clothing and a mask with a long beak filled with Bergama oil and posies so that they wouldn’t potentially inhale the disease on accident. The line “ashes, ashes” is referring to the mass cremations of the bodies affected by the disease. European versions of this rhyme replace the line with “a-tishoo. A-tishoo” , because violent and horrible sneezing was another symptom of the plague. “We all fall down” refers to the victims who had fallen prey to the disease, who died or came close to death in their homes.

The nursery rhyme for the Spanish Influenza Epidemic is not as in-depth as “Ring around the rosy”, but it is still effective and descriptive of the time. The rhyme goes “I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened a window, and In-flu-enza.” This little rhyme calls to attention to the idea and truth that birds carried the disease and transmitted it easily. Doctors at the time did not know this and left the windows in the wards and birds would fly in and out as they pleased.

“On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, starting World War I. Four years and three months later, on November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed in Northern France ending “The Great War.” The death toll was enormous, estimated at 8 to 10 million, but it paled in comparison to the influenza pandemic that also struck in 1918.” (Perlin, 2002) This shows the impact a disease can have on a nation and the world itself. If a world war is nothing in comparison to the tragedy and number dead of a disease, we can obviously learn that the world war more prepared for war than a cold. “With an estimated death toll of 40 million people in less than a year. There were on the order of 34 million combat deaths in all the wars of the twentieth century combined. have Before the 1918 epidemic, one has to go back to the black death (bubonic plague) of 1346 to find a similarly devastating epidemic in terms of total numbers of deaths.” (globalsecurity.com. 2000) In comparison to 1918 when the U.S. population was about 103.2 million, today the U.S. population is 314.6, that would mean that if the Spanish Influenza epidemic were to hit today with the same death rates that 125.84 million people would die.

“The first recorded case of the plague was in China in 224 B.C.E.” (Perlin, 2002) This means that the Europeans may have had previous knowledge about the plague. It is not known whether there actually was knowledge of the plague, due to the tragedy of the fourteenth century. “But the most significant outbreak was in Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. Over a five-year period from 1347 to 1,352.25 million people died. One-third to one-half of the European population was wiped out!” (Perlin, 2002) According to Europeword.com, an online blog containing researched information on the continent of Europe, “it has been estimated that the Europe population is about 830.4 million.” (europeworld.com, 2012) That means if the Black Death were to hit today and have the same drastic effects that it did back then and the plague were centrally localized in Europe alone, the death toll would be 276.8 million.

“Contrary to popular belief it was not just the people who lived in the towns who were at risk of catching the Black Death or Bubonic Plague. Elizabethan farmers and retailers of farm produce, such as animal hides, were in constant danger of contracting the Bubonic plague (Black Death) and this was a deadly consequence of their job.” (The Black Death Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan Era, 2005) This means that the death toll was in combination of both those in the metropolis areas of the day and in the rural ones. Why these numbers may not be as high because of the distance and seclusion that rural/farm areas in Europe could provide. It still hit very hard. “The disease could also be air bound and transmitted from an infected person’s breath.” (The Black Death Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan Era, 2005)

“In 1563, in London alone, over 20,000 people died of the disease. This particular epidemic claimed between a quarter and a third of the total Elizabethan London population. Statistics show that 1000 people died weekly in mid August, 1600 per week in September, and 1800 per week in October. The Elizabethan City of London was filthy.” (The Black Death Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan Era, 2005)

“In the Elizabethan era various concoctions of herbs were given and used for the medical treatment of different parts of the body and the varying symptoms of the disease.” (The Black Death Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan Era, 2005) This is due to the belief that diseases were largely transmitted through airborne passage, and thus precaution was taken. “Elizabethan medical treatment for head pains was with sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, lavender, sage, and bay. Medical treatment for stomach pains and sickness was with wormwood, mint, and balm. Lung problems given the medical treatment of liquorice and comfrey. Vinegar was widely used as a cleansing agent as it was believed that it would kill disease. Bloodletting, or cutting open the vein nearest the infected part of the body, was commonly thought to be one of the best ways to treat the illness.” (The Black Death Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan Era, 2005) This exposed the body to open infection and germs in the air. This caused the disease to spread easier through blood contact and examination. “The blood that exuded was black, thick and vile smelling with a greenish scum mixed in it. The Bubonic plague (Black Death) was the greatest fear of people living during the Elizabethan era from the Queen herself to the lowliest of her subjects.” (The Black Death Bubonic Plague during the Elizabethan Era, 2005)

The Spanish influenza took place at the military base in Boston during World War 1in September, but did not start there. Soldiers there started to die, and the doctors on base thought it was just the flu, but when they researched it and ran more tests it was different than other strains of the virus that were readily available to be tested and used for vaccines. The base where it is believed to have started was in Fort Riley Kansas. Fort Riley was a very large camp with over 25,000 soldiers and extremes in weather. It also had a great deal of horses which would produce almost 10 tons of manure each month. With that much manure each month there was no good way of disposing of it, so the soldiers at the base burned it. In early March, there was a dust storm that mixed with the manure which was burning and created a disgusting yellow haze, which was so bad, that even the sun was unable to be seen. Just a few days later hundreds of men were complaining about the same sickness, which doctors initially thought was just a standard cold or flu. Fort Riley was not the only military base to suffer from this massive epidemic with no chance of a cure at the moment in time.

A few months later hundreds of prisoners at San Quinton came down with the same flu that the soldiers in Kansas did. The doctors did not know what to do to cure the prisoners because there was not enough data on new illness to be spread around. Even if there was a way to spread information on how to stop the spread, the American people had more to worry about with the First World War There was more concern with winning the war, than a possible epidemic which did not have the same immediate effect on people. Each area where the flu hit, was unable to fully communicate with other areas, so the general population was unaware about how dangerous the sickness was becoming and how far it was spreading. Meanwhile in Boston at the same time period, there was some talk between the neighboring bases about a sickness affecting the soldiers on base. They brought in more medical professionals and it turned out that it was something more severe than just the common flu. The condition shocked professionals when they found a bloody substance in the lungs of the victims. Almost every military base from Massachusetts to Florida was affected. Around the same time the general public was also suffering from the devastating disease. People were dropping dead at a march to support the war efforts.

Over on the west coast there was more patriotic speech than speech about the new pandemic. It took months before the tide turned from the world war to the war on this new disease. By that time there were almost 5,000 cases of the flu. The city started shutting down public places where it could have spread more. That unfortunately was not enough to stop the spread. During that time the city was divided into sections where medical personal and supplies could be sent. The problem was that there were not enough doctors to treat the 500 patients a day per doctor. Because of that everyone who could help did so in their own way. The worst areas in the larger cities were the immigrant areas because of issues understanding the language and racism from many groups of people. The one solution that people used and put into effect was that everyone in the city had to wear a mask to prevent the spread of disease. It was illegal not to wear their mask. In late November, there was a celebratory removal of masks because they thought the epidemic was over. A couple of weeks later, thousands of new cases came up. There were not enough medical personnel to take care of everyone. Retired doctors and medical students were brought in to help the sick. There was nothing that anyone could do and a couple weeks after that the death toll soured to over 4,000 people. There were many horror stories of people having to pay to dig graves for their loved ones. Around the same time a year later that the disease started a vaccine was created.

The symptoms of the Spanish Influenza during that time were very similar to the normal seasonal flu, which is why it shocked doctors so much. They knew there were some differences, but the normal medication was not effective against it. The normal remedies to cure the airway inflammation and fevers were having little to no effect on the patient.

The people who were most at risk for contracting the flu were people who lived in close quarters with other people. Prisoners and people in the military were the most susceptible because of the living conditions. Prisoners lived in very close quarters with each other and diseases spread very quickly and it would not take very long for a disease in one cell block to transfer to the rest of the prison. The military was also very at risk for catching diseases. It was a high stress environment so the immune systems were weakened and soldiers also lived with many people per barrack. The medical staff was better in the military, but the resources were not the same as in the general environment. The other groups of people that are likely to be hit the hardest are the elderly and the very young. The elder population has a compromised immune system and everything else about them is weakened. They also may not have the same amount of money or insurance that adults have. Without the insurance or money to pay for treatment then the disease will go unattended and will be much more lethal. The very young on the other hand have not had the same chance to build up an immune system and often time’s one disease can lead to something much more severe in a very short time. There will be less of a window of opportunity for a child to be seen by a doctor and receive treatment than an adult or even someone in the elder population. The best thing that could be done for those special populations would be to take extra precautions and wear masks which were enforced later on during the pandemic.

The Black Death took place was Europe in the early to mid-1300s, but there were sporadic outbreaks for many years after the initial hit. It was also one of the largest plagues in the history of Europe. Over the two year span that it left over 200 million people were killed by the one disease.

There is no exact place where it is known to have started, but it is believed that it started somewhere in the Gobi Desert some time before it hit Europe and Asia. There was a great deal of information on where and how it spread. It was spread across Europe through all of the trade routes to all of the other countries that trades with Europe were affected by the disease. Europe was not the only country that was affected. Asia was hit extremely hard and lost almost a quarter of their population over fifty years. The population in Europe dropped a third due to this one outbreak.

The disease was spread heavily by the rats in the country, through bites and general disturbance through waste and the dead bodies. Another large contributor to the spread of the disease was that it was contagious and if someone had it, then it would be spread through breathing and general contact. Dead bodies also contained the virus and would be spread by anyone who came into contact and were not protected in some kind of way. The dead bodies were also used as weapons during war times to infect attacking armies. Since of the contagious nature, people who either had a strong immune system and were not affected by the disease for whatever reason and also people who had protection would roam the streets with carts to pick up the bodies and would transport them out of the city to ensure that the disease would not spread to the rest of the town. After the bodies were far enough away, they would be burned to ensure the virus could not spread to neighboring areas.

The plague affected every aspect on society. People became very upset with the church because they were not able to help the victims and everyone was dying. The church was also unable to offer any kind of reason for it happening. Another problem with the church at that point in time was for the people who were living in isolation such as the monks because the death toll was so high and in isolation the death rate was greatly increased. Because of that Europe fell into the dark ages where there was a strong lack of religion and because of the high death toll, there was not enough people to improve upon sciences or anything at all. The church also allowed the victims to tell their sins to anyone, which was a new phenomenon, because before it had to be to a member of the church. The sciences, literature and everything that required people to do anything was completely shut down in order to help the dying.

There were so many new issues that were being raised to the survivors of the plague. The prices on everything rose, especially on wool and cotton which were used in a great deal of everything that was used during that time period. There was a greater emphasis on labor, but the problem was that more and more people were leaving the fields and going to work in factories, which left the country needing supplies, but there were not enough resources to take care of the needs of everyone. The farm land was also given up for to grow food and it reduced the amount of meat that was available to the rest of the population. The poorer people of the country moved to the city where they would be close to jobs, rather than in the field where they either farmed or were not given an opportunity to succeed. This plague is also the reason for the decline in the feudal system and now anyone could improve their status in society. Because of all of the changes England was completely reformed and has improved upon all of the issues that caused the plague. Sanitation improved, and Europe became much more industrialized.

The symptoms of the Black Death were that there would be painful swelling on various parts of the body, the swelling would go from red and start to deepen in color and ended at black which gave the plague the name. There were also other symptoms that included severe pain, fevers, and extreme fatigue which would often time prove fatal. The illness was so severe that once infected the average time for survival was at most four days before they died.

The Black Death did not target any group in particular. Everyone who was in Europe was affected in some way. Even nobility was slain. The King’s daughter fell to this devastating disease. Since there was no cure for it, a third of Europe’s population was killed over two years due to one epidemic. Unlike most diseases that target people in close proximity to each other, the very young or old, this hit everyone hard. The people who were hit the hardest were similar to other victims of pandemics and they were in close proximity to each other. Because of the inability to leave the environment and it spread very quickly.

The treatments trying to cure the plague were very primitive and painful. They ranged from using various herbs and combinations of herbs that would work on other illnesses to bleeding the victim. The blood that came out was very thick and black. There was also trying to drain the swelling and applying butter, garlic, and other herbs into the infected area. Nothing was working and the doctors did not know where to turn when everything was else was failing and people were dying. Many doctors also felt extreme amounts of guilt for not being able to take care of any of the victims or even make their final moments of life easier to deal with. During the later outbreak tobacco was used when it was brought over from Asia. That also had little to no effect on the illness, but it did provide a little amount of relief from the painful symptoms that they were experiencing.




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