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Through The Lens: Influenza And History

By Staff | Mar 11, 2020

Recently, I saw someone with a medical mask covering their face. I wondered, did they want to avoid the flu? After all, every time I watch a news report, they show people wearing masks to avoid the Coronavirus. The same report say masks are in short supply in parts of the country with fear of the virus spreading.

In this country, health officials are working diligently to prevent a major outbreak in the general population. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is trying to understand this strain of flu and create a vaccine to help with its prevention. But a vaccine is months away before human testing can even start. By then, the outbreak for this country’s flu season most likely will have passed.

The coronavirus has been around for a long time. It can be found in both animals and mankind. Scientists have found several varieties. They believe only five are harmful to humans. In most cases, this strain is generally mild causing only respiratory discomfort. The different strains range in severity from mild to moderate. But that doesn’t seem to be the case this time.

The CDC’s research will in all likely hood be ready for next season’s flu outbreak. But the trouble with the flu virus is that it is a very resourceful disease. Just when medicine finds an effective answer for each new strain of the virus, it mutates and changes itself into another genetic strain that resists the new medication. Scientists play an endless game of Whac-A-Mole with the disease. You would think it would not be that hard, after all this thing is so small we can’t even see it with our eyes. Yet, we know these invisible viruses and germs lurk on door handles, gas pump nozzles and most everything we touch just waiting to make us ill.

Within each of us is a legion of antibodies. Specialized proteins that guard our system from infection by harmful germs and viruses. As we go about our daily lives, these antibodies patrol within each of us seeking foreign invaders. In a healthy individual, these antibodies prevent our system from being overrun. But sometimes, these microscopic invaders can overrun our systems defenses. That’s when we become ill with a new strain of flu.

Do you remember this morning when you went to the grocery store and selected a shopping cart? I’ll bet you didn’t know just before you selected that cart a small child touched his runny nose and wiped it on the handle of the cart. YUK! It happens and we are exposed each day to a world of germs.

Mary sanitizes the shopping cart’s handle each time she selects one. She also uses hand sanitizer regularly. I will also have to confess I use sanitizing jell, but I don’t always wipe the shopping cart handle. Nor do I sanitize my hands immediately after touching a gas pump nozzle. But I do wash my hands each time I come into the house as a normal habit.

As I told you earlier, your body is the best defense to protect your health. But even with a strong immune system, use of sanitizing jells and medical masks, we all are going to get a cold or a slight case of the flu. Our fault? Sometimes. Remember I told you that viruses continue to evolve and mutate with each new generation. Our antibodies do not change until they are exposed to a new virus. By then, it may be too late. These tiny alien invaders are always somewhere around us waiting for our defenses to be down.In 1976, Mary and I stood in a line outside the Steelton Grade School with hundreds of other people waiting to get our swine flu shot. It is estimated that nearly twenty five percent of the country’s population rolled up their sleeves and got vaccinated. When the feared epidemic passed, the vaccine made little or no difference on the swine flu’s prevention. Not as much was known back then about the different strains of flu and the effectiveness of a vaccine to prevent an outbreak.

When historians talk of the flu’s effect on our history, they refer to 1918 and the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. An estimated 500 million people around the world were infected. Records tell us as many as one-hundred million died from the flu’s effect. In 1918, that was nearly 5% of the world’s population. Today, the expected mortality rate for the typical annual flu is .01%. The rate for the Coronavirus is said to be around 1% worldwide. The news seems to emphasize the fatality number. Not much is said about the 99% that fully recover.

Science today believes the 1918 flu was so lethal because it attacked a person’s airway. The flu is generally most harmful to the very young and the old, but the Spanish Flu of 1918 attached people in their prime of life. Within a few days the people stricken developed severe respiratory problems. Its victim’s skin often turned blue from lack of oxygen as they struggled for each breath.

If you wonder why they called it the Spanish Flu, it was because when it spread to Spain the newspapers quickly reported it and sounded the alarm worldwide. Spain was not involved in the war and did not exercise censorship of the news. Historians now believe it may have begun on March 11, 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas. That was 102 years ago today. History tells us that patient zero is believed to have been an army cook named Albert Gitchell. A few hours after he reported sick, one hundred other soldiers reported similar symptoms. Troops heading for the war in Europe carried the disease across the country and into Europe. It is also known, cases were reported in Boston and China about the same time.

The Spanish flu came in three waves beginning in 1918 and lasting through the early 1920’s. The strain of flu came and went as it evolved with each new outbreak. The virus mutated and eventually became dormant. There is still a great deal of research being done on the Spanish Flu of 1918. Yet with all science has learned, more needs to be understood to prevent future pandemics. We know now the pandemic of 1918 was more lethal than the bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the 1300’s.

In the late nineteenth century, two events in my opinion foretold the roll viruses and bacteria would have in our world. First, in 1892 science began to understand that microscopic viruses and bacteria played a major part in causing the many illnesses that plague mankind. Secondly, while scientists studied and speculated how these invisible things affected man’s health, a science-fiction book was first published in 1898. The story was written by H.G. Wells. It was titled, ‘War of the World’. Why do I think this is important? At the end of the story, the other worldly invaders were not stopped by mankind, but by the humblest things God has put upon this earth. Wells somehow envisioned viruses and bacteria would play a part in the future of mankind for both good and bad. Twenty years later the Spanish Flu outbreak demonstrated the potential for the humblest of things to affect millions, just like in Wells’ story. But unlike in his book it was not space aliens, but mankind that was profoundly affected by the smallest of God’s things, as I see it Through the Lens.