Spanish Influenza: The Last Of Five Infamous Epidemics We Hope We Never See

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SPANISH INFLUENZA

"¢ The deadliest epidemic in history, the Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people — and maybe twice that many — surpassing even the plague.

influenza_mask.jpg"¢ The flu brought the country to its knees in 1918 and 1919. In New York City, 851 people died in one day. Public gatherings were cancelled nationwide. When people did go out, they wore very chic gauze masks.

"¢ Though it is still called Spanish flu, many epidemiologists now think the virus originated in rural Kansas.

"¢ Many folks didn't take the epidemic seriously because it was a flu epidemic. Everybody's gotten the flu, right? But this was an extraordinarily violent flu. Its victims turned blue, coughed so hard they pulled muscles, and bled from the nose and ears.

"¢ It took a while for the average Joe or Jane to realize was happening. Politicians focused on World War I weren't about to let a little flu distract the country. They downplayed the danger, censured newspaper reports, and crammed soldiers into barracks where the flu raged, according to John Barry's The Great Influenza. American officials also played the blame game: The Germans started flu, they said.

"¢ Searching for clues why this particular flu was so deadly, scientists have taken tissue from the bodies of frozen flu victims found in the Arctic.

"¢ On the bright side, the flu walloped the German army, helping us win the war. It also spurred research on pneumonia (a secondary infection that many flu victims caught), which led to the discovery of DNA.

Other Infamous Epidemics We Hope We Never See: yellow fever, cholera, plague and syphilis. Chris Weber will be back with more Weird Science later this month. Give him a round of applause.

October 5, 2007 - 9:29am
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