Key West Lou / The flu epidemic 1918;

a hit and kill virus

By Louis Petrone


In researching material for my next book, “Growing Up Italian,” the flu epidemic of 1918 came into play. I read a little about it, became fascinated by the story and so researched it thoroughly. Especially in view of how each year it is drummed into us to get a flu shot. I share with you what I discovered.


The flu epidemic of 1918 is technically referred to as pandemic influenza. Pandemic is defined as an epidemic of infectious disease that has spread through human populations across a large region, including multiple contingents. The 1918 flu bug infected and killed people on every continent. Flu obviously is short for influenza.


The 1918 flu extended into 1919. It was deadly. The bug infected five hundred million people worldwide, 35 per cent of the world’s population. Fifty million died; 675,000 died in the United States alone. It was called the Spanish flu. Strange —because it began at a U.S. Army camp in Kansas. The Spanish flu was not a significant danger to the young or old. It predominately killed young adults, 20-40 years old.


It has been described as “…the greatest medical holocaust in history.” The Spanish flu killed more people than the Black Death did in a century. More dramatically, it killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS did in 24 years.


This was a hit and kill virus. People became sick suddenly and were dead in a matter of hours. The bug caused massive hemorrhaging and edema in the lungs, with bleeding from the ears and nose. The infected almost immediately developed the most viscous type of pneumonia ever seen. Death was by suffocation. Patients died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth. Physicians were helpless. The epidemic was an unforgettable year of suffering and death.


I appreciate today’s flu is a different one. Today, there are multiple strains. Perhaps more deadly.


I share what I learned for one reason. Get the flu shot! Too many say no. Some say, “I did and got sick.” Many are smart types that simply ignore the medical message. Anti arguments should be set aside. We never know when and if another pandemic flu epidemic will arise — one which could kill as many or more than the 1918 flu did.

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