How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918

By Larry Holzwarth
How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918

One of the pitfalls of the present is the belief that nothing like this has ever happened before. It has. The Spanish Flu, which struck the world near the end of the First World War presents lessons applicable to the present, but only if they are understood and considered as they truly occurred, without resorting to myth and hype. It happened to a world struggling with what was, up until then, the most climactic war in human history. This outbreak proved to be even more life changing. The tools needed to fight it were largely non-existent. Social media consisted of telegrams, mail, and messengers. Little in the way of pharmaceutical intervention was available. To fight it, medical professionals recommended limited socialization, better personal hygiene, and disinfecting surfaces.

A temporary emergency hospital for victims of the Spanish Flu at Camp Funston, Kansas. National Archives

Despite its global spread and the number of people infected, estimated by some to include one third of the world’s population, the world overcame the flu and recovered. This major event straddled the months between the latter days of World War I and the Roaring Twenties. Since it occurred, researchers have debated where it originated, when it started, and how it spread around the globe. Some have suggested it first appeared in Kansas, others New York, and still others in the military staging camps in Europe. Where it began really doesn’t matter. What does is that the world suffered through a catastrophic blow, from which lessons were learned to battle subsequent outbreaks. Contrary to what some continue to say, it has happened before. Here is how the United States fought the Spanish flu event, and subsequently recovered.

Quarantine of those exposed to the flu worked with varying degrees of effectiveness. Wikimedia

1. The Spanish Flu was less catastrophic in some locations than others

When Spanish flu struck in the United States, it was treated differently by state and municipal governments. The reaction by officials caused the disease to be less severe in some areas, with lower rates of infection and casualties in those cities which responded more rapidly to the crisis. Social containment measures in cities where the flu virus appeared reduced the number of people exposed. Establishing social containment policies and enforcing them within days of reports of the first cases in a municipality reduced the subsequent loss of life by up to half of those suffered by cities which took longer to respond.

Both St. Louis and Philadelphia imposed restrictions on social gatherings during this time. In the case of the former, social gatherings were banned within 48 hours of the first observed cases in the city. Philadelphia waited two weeks, and failed to cancel or postpone a parade intended to generate patriotic support for World War I. The Spanish flu killed more than 8 times the number of people in Philadelphia than in St. Louis. Three days after the parade every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. One week after the parade 2,600 Philadelphians had died, a number which rose to 4,500 the following week. On October 5, 1918, one week after the parade, the Philadelphia Inquirer opined, “The authorities seem to be going daft”, in response to municipal leaders enforcing social containment.