|Influenza Pandemic of 1918
Over a hundred years ago another major pandemic raged throughout the world.
By Bruce Doorly
|Today our country along with the rest of the world is in a state of shutdown due to a contagious new virus known as the Coronavirus.
At the time of this writing globally almost three million people have been infected and over two hundred thousand have died. In the United States, almost a million have been infected and over fifty thousand have died.
From an economic point of view, millions have lost their jobs, thousands of businesses could face bankruptcy, and a recession is a certainty, with a depression a very strong possibility. Anxiety is high everywhere as nothing like this has ever happened in modern times.
|While each death is tragic, the current death toll from the Coronavirus is less than one percent of the death toll from
the global pandemic that occurred in 1918. The results were devastating. It is estimated that between 20 and 100 million people worldwide died
as result of the influenza (flu) virus that year.
It was often called the Spanish Flu. In the United States the death toll was around 675,000.
|The 1918 flu pandemic began early in the spring of that year. It was at first a mild version.
While it caused many deaths, initially no major alarm was sounded as back then it was all too common for people to die before their time.
But after the first wave of the flu, another more deadly strain of the virus struck beginning in September. It spread quickly throughout the globe. The reasons for this spread was that the virus was highly contagious and it was during wartime. World War I was raging at the time. Troops that were huddled close together in their barracks caused a rapid spread of the disease. Then the infected soldiers traveled all over further spreading the infection.
|In New Jersey two military bases Camp Dix (now called Fort Dix) in Burlington County and Camp Merritt (now closed) in Bergen County were hit hard with the Spanish Flu.
|Camp Dix in 1918
|The flu spread quickly to the civilian population.
The speed with which the disease often killed was as shocking as the number of people that it affected. People who seemed perfectly healthy in the morning could be dead by night.
Ironically, it hit the strongest and healthiest age group, as those in their twenties and thirties had the highest rates of mortality.
|Top scientists of the day hurried to try and find cures. They concocted vaccines and medicines,
but nothing worked.
Cures seemed to be non-existent. Once one had the disease, all you could do was pray that you would recover.
|While September of 1918 was bad, October 1918 was the most tragic month in history. Most of the deaths would occur in that one month alone.
So many were dying in a short period of time that projections showed that a good percent of the global population could be wiped out.
Undertakers ran out of caskets. Many actually thought the world was coming to an end.
Former Raritan Mayor Jo-Ann Liptak recalls that her mother (who lived through the pandemic) told her that during the peak of the epidemic (October 1918) that there was a funeral almost every day in Raritan.
|While medical knowledge was limited in 1918, people knew the basics. This Spanish Flu was spread person-to-person most
probably through coughing or sneezing.
The only defense was not to get the virus. Simply avoid other people. Person-to-person contact needed to be greatly reduced. The government closed all schools, theatres, bars, and prohibited any public gathering.
|So, in Raritan the popular Raritan Theatre on Anderson Street (where Frame Me is today), which had
just opened in 1914, was closed. The Regent Theatre in Somerville (where the Melting Pot was for years) would see the doors shut as well.
The two Raritan schools the Primary School (located where the Municipal Building is today), and the Intermediate School (today that building is called First Growth Plaza), would suspend classes. No doubt the newly opened hang out for kids The Candy Kitchen (where the The Raritan Music Store is today) would have been closed.
|The local hospital The Somerset Hospital (which has evolved into Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Somerset)
was overwhelmed with patients. (The hospital, which opened in 1901, was still in its original location in an expanded colonial home on East Main Street across from where the hospital is today.)
A secondary hospital for the overflow of patients was setup in a vacant school building at the corner of Davenport and West High Street in Somerville. Doctors and nurses were in very short supply due to the large number of cases and because one quarter of them were overseas aiding our soldiers fighting the war.
|The Hospital in Somerville as it was in 1918
|It is estimated that 25 percent of the U.S. population would get the virus. Of those that got the virus 3 percent would die.
Mercifully the number of flu cases subsided in November and continued to decline dramatically in the next few months. The horror of it all would leave survivors to not want to talk about those horrible times. Many history books barely mention this pandemic.
|Much about the 1918 pandemic may sound familiar today.
The shutdown of public places, people avoiding each other, (today called social distancing), the overwhelmed hospitals and shortage of healthcare workers.
|But all too familiar is how vulnerable we still are to a deadly virus.
Over the last century advances in medical technology have led to incredible achievements.
Smallpox, once a deadly killer, has been essentially eradicated from this planet.
Polio, which crippled many children and held society in fear when outbreaks did occur, is but a distant memory.
Deadly infections caused by bacteria are now cured by modern antibiotics.
Even AIDS, once a death sentence, is mostly a manageable disease.
Indeed, mankind has chalked up many impressive victories against once formidable diseases. But our battle against the virus has yet to be won. This nasty little killer has just one purpose, to infect and multiply. First it infects an individual, then multiplies inside the body, and then tries (and often succeeds) to move to infect another.
|Through technological advances today we can identify the strain of any killer viruses.
Our powerful microscopes even allow us to photograph them. So, we know exactly who the bad guy is, what he looks like,
and we even understand how he inflicts damage to our bodies (just Google viruses or check Wikipedia),
but in this battle the bad guy remains undefeated.
At present time our best hope to stay safe when he strikes is to avoid him (by staying away from others), same as it was in 1918.
|The Coronavirus under a powerful microscope