March 11, 1918
Fort Riley, Kansas, USA
Several cases of an “influenza” have hospitalized new recruits.
Was this a headline? More likely it was a line in a physician or military hospital administrator’s report. The Great War raged in Europe. Eleven months ago the United States joined the hostilities. Army camps full of young men have been built and staffed. Training covers the basics of marching, shooting, and following orders. We need soldiers as fast as they had be trained and transported.
The war is top priority. We need men. Recovered patients and the men that have been living with them in close quarters are shipped to Europe. Living conditions on the battlefield make the training camp barracks appear a palace. But peace looms on the horizon. The Armistice will take effect on November 11, 1918.
Before the armistice papers are prepared another enemy, more deadly than German gas attacks, machine guns, or that new mechanized marvel of war – the tank – goes to work among the soldiers. Civilians suffer too.
From the autumn of 1918 to the end of 1919 more people would die of the “influenza” than were killed in the preceding four years of war. It spread with troop movements plus along shipping and trade routes. It circled the globe and killed more than 20 million people before it sputtered to a halt.
Could it happen again? Will the next outbreak of “bird flu” or “SARS” explode into a pandemic? Treatment in 1918-1919 was limited. Medical personnel was worked to the limit – many physicians and nurses were with the army – the epidemic among civilians tested the limits of those remaining.
Today International travel provides a route for rapid movement – of people and pathogens. Yet the same is true for information, treatment protocols, and medicine. What have we learned in the ninety plus years since the pandemic?