The 1918 Flu Pandemic – The Forgotten Plague – Extra History – #6


This year, Carnivale is different. The flu that had killed
15,000 in Rio is gone but its spirit lingers. Float crews adopt macabre themes
taken from the height of the outbreak. There’s the block
of the holy house, playing off a popular euphemism
for the hospital. Behind them, parades the block
of the midnight tea… …named after a rumor that doctors killed
terminal flu patients with opium overdoses. Street cars pass, decorated with tea pots
and cemetery gates. A few months before, the same street cars had collected
the city’s dead. [Opening music] The third wave of the pandemic
kept killing until 1920, but it was clear
that the worst was over. Humans had done little
to stop the virus. Instead, it simply ran out of fuel. Those who caught it
became immune and it spread across
the globe so fast… …infecting so many people that herd immunity began to protect
those who escaped previous waves… …but there were still
flare-ups. On November 11th, 1918 The news broke: an armistice. The Great War was over. People flooded the streets ignoring bans on public gatherings… …and in each city a new wave of infections followed
the impromptu celebrations. The same would happen again
and again on a smaller scale as loved ones gathered
to welcome returning soldiers home. There were still outbreaks, still deaths… …but everyone could see it was trailing off. The horror was past. All that remained was
to count the cost, a project
that continues to this day In the years after the pandemic researchers initially estimated
the disease had killed 20 million people Modern estimates have increased
that number to 50 million Though because statistics
aren’t available in the worst-hit regions like India and Russia, the final number may be
twice as many According to modern estimates,
it killed 17 to 20 million in India… …perhaps 4 million in Indonesia… …possibly a million in Russia… …400,000 in France… …and 390,000 in Japan In the United Kingdom,
it sickened 1/4 of the population and killed up to 220,000 In the U.S., it took around 675,000. More than the Civil War… …and killed 16,000 in Philadelphia alone But for a disease
that killed so many, it’s hard to point out
direct consequences. In fact, the flu seems to have worked
in tandem with the war, each magnifying
the effects of the other In the 1920s, a wave of political unrest
swept countries around the globe This was because of the war but also because
the flu had revealed deep inequalities, especially in colonial rule Post-viral fatigue from flu infections probably contributed to the depression
and listlessness that took hold after the war. Yet despite the heavy toll the flu took and the heroism of medical workers
that died fighting it… …there’s still no monument commemorating the event other than plaques
marking mass graves Textbooks mention it but usually just in passing We chose not to remember, which is why some have christened it The Forgotten plague. There are theories why society
chose to forget the flu. Perhaps it came and went so fast that people simply remembered it
as part of the war Or it’s possible that focus on the war and inability to see the big picture meant that society never really
absorbed what happened But keep in mind, it also hit a generation that was
just more used to epidemics… …in a time where mass death may have been less shocking Conversely, some have argued that the flu was so traumatic families formed unspoken agreements never to discuss it The memories that did endure
were intensely personal: lost parents, lost siblings, friends gone too soon, families impoverished when their breadwinners died In some cases, soldiers came back from the trenches
to find their entire family wiped out Ask your family and you might find
a story of your own Generations later the trauma still lingers Yet apart from Katherine Anne Porter’s
Pale Horse, Pale Rider, there was no explosion
of novels about flu as there were about the war. It was a more difficult subject It’s faceless enemy more challenging to portray
than the man-made terror of the trenches But Porter wasn’t the only notable person
to suffer from the flu In fact, it infected so many famous people
that it raises a chilling question: How different
would our world be if even one
of them had died? Among the ill
were President Wilson, British Prime Minister
David Lloyd George, Gandhi, Kaiser Wilhelm, and General Pershing A generation of notable artists caught it as well including T. S. Eliot and a young ambulance driver
named Walt Disney Franklin Roosevelt contracted it
while sailing on USS Leviathan Then there are the people
we did lose: the president-elect of Brazil and Austrian painters Egon Shilla and Gustav Klimt Lenin’s right-hand man succumbed, clearing the way for his replacement Josef Stalin And In New York, the flu killed
an obscure German immigrant… …allowing his son to cash in his life insurance
and expand the family’s real estate business His name was Frederick Trump You might be familiar with his grandson But the flu also drove
scientific discovery. Doctors developed new surgical techniques
and procedures for disease containment. It likely sped up the civilian
world’s adoption of ambulances. The desperate vaccines produced during the pandemic, cocktails of antibodies
from every bacterial doctor suspected… …were the predecessor of today’s combination vaccines like Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis Nurses, who bore
so much of the burden, won new confidence
and respect for their profession Increasingly, their discipline became
more than serving as doctors assistants… …and the flu helped them be seen
as professionals in their own right Many cities and nations, caught off guard by the crisis, established
new health departments… …and organizations
to monitor disease It helped push the idea
of national health insurance and government provided medicine… …and it drove research By the 1930s, researchers were crafting
effective flu vaccines And many who battled flu would go on
to do great things Anna Williams nurtured
an entire generation of female researchers FDR eulogized Welch via radio And remember Oswald Avery, the guy Welch tasked
with finding Pfeiffer’s bacillus and who helped develop
the pneumonia serum? After the war, he returned
to researching bacteria, trying to discern how a bacteria
without a hard coating… …transformed into a bacteria with one After laboring for 20 years, he finally found the substance that caused the change: That’s right. Avery discovered that the purpose
of DNA is to carry genetic instructions Today, he’s considered a pioneer of modern genetics The flu also drove research
into Pfeiffer’s bacillus, which many
still believed caused flu After working in a military hospital during the war, one Scottish doctor devoted his life
to studying microbes One day, he accidentally left
a culture of it out for the night When he returned the next morning… …he found a strange mold growing on it
that killed any bacteria it touched That man was
Alexander Fleming. And the mysterious mold? It was penicillin: the first wonder drug and probably the most consequential discovery of the 20th century Even today, the 1918 flu remains a subject
of study for researchers In fact, over the last several decades,
researchers and epidemiologists have started to make breakthroughs
on the 1918 flu Helping us better
understand what happened so we can combat
the next great pandemic Researchers still don’t know
where the flu emerged There are way more theories
than we portrayed But we can now name the culprit In 1998, researchers obtained a lung sample
from a frozen grave in Alaska and confirmed what many suspected: The 1918 flu was H1N1, an avian strain… …new then but is less dangerous now that our immune systems
have had a century of exposure They’ve also begun to unravel
the pandemics mysteries For instance, we now suspect that it killed young healthy people precisely because they were young and healthy Those patients that turned blue? They probably weren’t killed
by the flu at all but by their own immune systems Once infected, victims immune systems triggered
a massive inflammatory response known as a cytokine storm But instead of neutralizing the flu, this enormous release
of disease killing cytokines… …filled lung sacks with fluid and inflamed them so much
they couldn’t absorb oxygen But the greatest lesson
of the flu pandemic is that flu can’t be ignored We don’t shrug off
new flu strains anymore In fact, many health organizations monitor both human
and animal strains… …predicting the dominant variety each season
and creating vaccine ahead of time If a new strain does arrive, we’ll be much more prepared
than doctors were in 1918 We have electron microscopes, antivirals, vaccine labs, and tested containment plans But a vaccine would still take
months to produce Meaning, we’d start by using the same measures
they did a century ago: voluntary quarantine banning public gatherings staggering work hours In fact, as Rob researched these episodes the city where he lives, Hong Kong… …closed schools to prevent
a seasonal flu outbreak and killed birds that tested positive
for avian influenza A century later, the battle against the 1918 flu
and its offspring continues So seriously, GET YOUR FLU SHOT! From an actual medical professional
and not a animated cat [Ending music]

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