2018 is the fortieth anniversary of the incorporation of Brevis. Yeah!
2018 is the anniversary of the end of World War One.
Great Influenza Pandemic
But 2018 is also the one-hundredth anniversary of the Great Influenza Pandemic. And a dramatic start of a hundred years war that has no end in sight. World-wide this pandemic claimed somewhere between 20 and 100 million victims in 1918-1919. Pick your source to pick your number.
In previous essays we have shown how the flu predisposed us to World War II by disabling Woodrow Wilson during the writing of the Treaty of Versailles. We have also talked about the search by intrepid scientists for the original virus which took them to frozen corpses in Brevig Mission, Alaska. The virus may have been identified but that does not explain how the original epidemic starting in Fort Funston, Kansas was quite mild and then became much more virulent in subsequent outbreaks. One thing is clear: Army forts were crowded with new recruits who were destined for Europe. Crowding was ideal for spread of this virus.
The highly mutable virus appears to have a natural host in ducks and ducks seem happy to share with chickens and pigs. Of which multitudes reside in China. So we go to China to discover each year which strains are on the current hit parade so that we can develop effective flu vaccines. Maybe this is how China is demonstrating the importance of their trade with the US. Or is it just a free gift as a way of saying Thank You for all the other goodies we import from them?
Wash Your Hands
Regardless of all the ins and outs of influenza – and all other infectious diseases – the best we can come up with for prevention are proper hand hygiene and vaccination. As the decades roll by replete with outbreaks of new often more virulent strains of nasties the most effective strategy remains the same. Wash your hands. Wash them often. Wash them well.
Gordon Short, MD
13 November 2018
This is the second post of a two-part article on The Great Influenza’s impact on World War II:
The war ended with an armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 (who said generals don’t have a sense of humor?) In spring of 1919 the allies gathered to hammer out a peace agreement with “The Big Four” (or Council of Four) in attendance: David Lloyd George of Britain, Georges Clemenceau (“The Tiger”) of France, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Woodrow Wilson of the US. Wilson was for treating Germany kindly and allowing it to recover its place among the community of nations.
But not Clemenceau. Now aged 77, “The Tiger” wanted to destroy and humiliate Germany so that it could never again be a threat to France. Wilson fought back and was so disgusted with Clemenceau that on occasion he threatened to leave the peace talks altogether.
But then the fickle finger of fate in the form of flu touched Wilson. He recovered sufficiently to continue with the peace conference, but he was but a mere shadow of his former self. He quickly acquiesced to Clemenceau. Germany was forced to accept the humiliating Versailles Treaty with its demands for huge reparations.
Germany sank into a severe depression. When Hitler showed how it would be possible to rebuild Germany’s economy and military, the German public enthusiastically looked upon him as their savior. And when Germany overran France in 1940, Hitler rubbed France’s nose in it by forcing the French to sign the surrender document in the same railway car in which Germany had been forced to sign the 1918 armistice agreement. But what was the explanation for the mental collapse of Woodrow Wilson? One of the sequelae of influenza is mental illness or deterioration (and in some cases even schizophrenia). This combined with pre-existing cerebral arteriosclerosis did the trick. Wilson’s will to fight Clemenceau disappeared. His brain was incapacitated. Wilson had a severe stroke only four months later and he never recovered.
Once again the 1935 wisdom of Hans Zinnser (American physician, bacteriologist, and prolific author) that the history of humanity is more often determined by microbes than by men is shown to be on the mark.
The story of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic is fascinating on its own terms and is superbly recounted by John M. Barry in his book, “The Great Influenza.” But did you know that this flu was the direct cause of the rise of Adolph Hitler and World War II? Here’s the story.
The virus itself was probably circulating before 1918, most notably in Etaples, France in 1916. Be that as it may, the pandemic itself was enhanced by the congregation of vast numbers of immunologically naive young men in camps such as Fort Riley, Kansas, its site of first appearance in the U.S., and then spread by them as they were deployed to Europe. Somewhere in its migration from birds to pigs to humans, the influenza virus (H1N1) most likely mutated to its ultimate virulent form. Regardless, there were three waves of infection: In the spring of 1918, the fall of 1918 and again in the spring of 1919.
Why this flu pandemic preferentially targeted young people is still debated. One suggestion is that prior epidemics of flu were immunologically similar enough that older citizens still had some residual resistance. The other obvious suggestion is that forcing large numbers of immunologically naive young men into close proximity in military camps was an ideal scenario for rapid spread. If it started in France or in Kansas, why was it known as “The Spanish Influenza”? Seems the Spanish press was uncensored at the time since Spain was not a participant in the World War. Therefore most of the news was printed in Spanish newspapers and it became “The Spanish Flu.”