Influenza Epidemics

My grandmother will turn 92 this April.  If you do the math, you will see that she was born in 1918, a year in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed by an influenza epidemic.   In October, 1918,  in the midst of World War I, 195,000 Americans died of the flu, making it the deadliest month in American history.  The flu killed the most robust of people who contracted it.  Soldiers were among the hardest hit, both in Europe and in the United States. I figure that I’m lucky to have ever been born, given that my grandmother was six months old, with little immune defenses against one of the deadliest influenza epidemics in modern history, in this deadliest month.  A bunch of coincidences have brought this flu epidemic to my mind in recent days.

As I have written about in earlier blog posts, I recently bought a Kindle.  One of my favorite authors is Dennis Lehane (a Boston author who wrote Mystic River, among other great novels) and so the first work of fiction that I’ve been reading on my Kindle is The Given Day, Lehane’s novel set in 1918.  It focuses on labor and race issues set against the deadliness of the flu epidemic of that year.  I haven’t finished the novel yet, but so far, it has been informative and enjoyable. 

As I have also written about in earlier blog posts, I decided to get the flu vaccine this year.  The swine flu was predicted to have been the deadliest since 1918 although it has turned out not to be.  The reasons for its relative mildness are not yet known but perhaps one thing is that we now understand how the flu is spread.  And of course, we do have vaccines that are quite effective.

The other night, PBS showed a documentary about the 1918 influenza epidemic.  The documentary details the devastation of the flu as well as the doctors who fought against.  They developed a vaccine which didn’t work because they were focused on bacteria and the flu is viral.  Little was known about viruses in 1918.  Luckily, according to the documentary, “As mysteriously as it had come, the terror began to slip away.”  It had virtually disappeared in Boston by early November.  Armistace Day (Nov 11) brought end to war in Europe and the worst of the epidemic was passing.  It appears that the flu ran out of “fuel”–people who were susceptible.  Survivors developed immunity.  550,000 Americans had died in the 10 months of the epidemic.  At least 30 million people around the world had died.  Nearly every human being on Earth was infected with the virus and therefore developed immunity.  And that probably explains why the swine flu of 2009, although not as deadly as predicted, didn’t hit elderly people very hard.  They had developed immunity from previous exposures.

An interesting side note to this story is that I had lunch with my grandmother today.  She lives in an elderly housing building in Goffstown, NH, where she, and my father, and I, all grew up.  This was the building that she had gone to high school in, and my father had gone to junior high in, and I had gone to 5th and 6th grade in.  When it was no longer needed as a school, it was renovated into apartments for the elderly.  She noted today that she graduated from high school in 1935 (at the age of 17 since she had skipped a grade when she was the only student in her grade in her one room school house).  This is the 75th anniversary of her high school graduation, a high school that was located in the building in which she now lives.  I asked if her class was going to have a reunion.  She said probably not, since she is one of only two of the sixteen she graduated with who are still alive.  And the other woman, who is nearly two years older than my grandmother, is not in very good health.  So no, they will probably not get together to celebrate their graduation from high school 75 years ago.

Life goes on and on and on.  And I’m struck by the arbitrariness, the luck, of it all.

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