The 1918 Influenza Pandemic
Epidemics of influenza have occurred for many decades, but the most severe was the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Of the influenza epidemics which occur each year, only a few become worldwide or pandemic. Four have taken place since 1918; however, there were previous pandemics over the centuries.
The 1918 pandemic was the most devastating one in recorded history as it led to more deaths than the First World War.
Worldwide, there were approximately 50 million deaths from the 1918 influenza pandemic, and in the United States, 675,000 people died.
Scientists did not know at that time that a virus was responsible for the disease, and there were no adequate medical therapies to cure or alleviate the medical condition. Moreover, the development of influenza vaccine had not yet taken place (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).
Most Deaths in Young Adults
Whereas most influenza epidemics led to death in particularly sensitive groups such as infants, children, and elderly people, the 1918 influenza pandemic caused adolescents and young adults to die.
In general, young adults have strong immune systems, and they tend not to succumb to this infection. Infants, small children, and elderly persons, however, do not have adequate immune responses whether to influenza or other infectious diseases.
Those who acquired influenza during the 1918 pandemic became ill very quickly and with little warning. Many of them displayed no symptoms when they awakened in the morning, but they died in a few days or less than one day.
Deaths resulted from complications of the disease such as pneumonia or bronchitis. This took place before the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics.
Intensive care units in hospitals at that time were, of course, not as modern as they are today, and there was not much the medical team could do for these patients.
Health authorities enacted the use of masks and advised people to cover their faces when they coughed or sneezed, but members of the community continued to acquire the influenza virus and rapidly deteriorate.
They also passed laws which made it unlawful to spit, but this did not reduce the occurrence of disease.
It afflicted entire families, and this left children who became orphans, and many women were widows as a result of the pandemic. Lack of sufficient hospital beds led to the use of schools and community centers as emergency medical centers. It hampered postal delivery because employees were too ill to come to work. For the same reason, telephone, telegraph, and garbage collection services suffered immensely.
There was a shortage of physicians and nurses because of the First World War. Those health care workers who attempted to travel to communities without medical personnel often became ill and did not make it to the destination. To prevent disease spread, public health authorities closed schools, theaters, saloons, pool halls, and churches.
Morgues accumulated an unusually large number of bodies as there were not enough caskets for them.
Scientists have since determined that the causative agent for this deadly pandemic was influenza AH1N1 virus.