New York and Boston have both declared public health emergencies due to what is now a flu epidemic as of January 2013.
But it’s not the first, or likely the last.
During the influenza epidemic almost a century ago, an estimated 650,000 Americans and approximately 50 million worldwide lost their lives.
Today, vaccination, preventative measures and supportive medical care have reduced morbidity and mortality, while patients can readily get information on the current spread, symptoms, treatments, and other information via the web. New York State Department of Health Seasonal Flu page and http://flu.gov as well as other state web sites are easily accessed. But in 1918, such information was disseminated by newspapers, public gatherings and word of mouth.
The fascinating history of this epidemic is well documented. Stop by HSL’s History of Medicine to read Deborah Bruch Bucki’s essay: “A History of Buffalo’s Medical Response to the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919″ in: Medical History in Buffalo 1846-1996: Collected Essays, compiled and edited by Lilli Sentz. Photos from the epidemic can be seen in Another Era: A Pictorial History of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1846-1996, including one showing Buffalo physicians and members of the junior and sophomore classes of the Medical School garbed in heavy, long white robes with hoods to reduce risk of contagion. Another photo shows ordinary citizens wearing gauze masks.
A worldwide account is detailed in Rajendra Kumar Sen’s A Treatise on Influenza,with Special Reference to the Pandemic of 1918, published in 1923.
Elsewhere on the web, check out the American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: a digital encyclypedia created by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. The archive contains over 16,000 historical documents and photographs, as well as the stories of 50 U.S. cities, including Buffalo. At one point theaters and schools suggested staying open so they could disseminate public health information, however on October 10th, 1918, all were ordered closed as well as all social gatherings and meetings, thus keeping Buffalo’s infection rate to just 6% compared to 10% nationwide.
The federal site, http://flu.gov, also includes a historical section, The Great Pandemic, The United States, 1918-1919, which includes a snapshot of life during that time, the state of medical care, events in every state of the union, documents including ads, posters, cartoons, charts, newspapers, and photos, biographies of key public health figures, and a bibliography.
Influenza – caused by a virus. At just 100 or so nanometers (.0000001 meter), it continues to cause misery.