As we get to the peak of this year’s influenza season, I thought a brief history lesson might be in order. After a few years of relatively mild flu seasons, 2017 has again emphasized the deadly nature of this virus. As of this writing, four children have died of complications from the flu. Whether or not these children were immunized has not been reported, but the Center for Disease Control does recommend the flu vaccine for everyone over 6 months of age. To protect those babies six months or younger, everyone that comes into contact with that baby should be vaccinated. For children 8 years of age or younger, two doses of vaccine, 28 days apart, are recommended for their first flu vaccines.
The problem with influenza is that it is a virus and although we have a few medications that can help shorten the duration of the flu and minimize complications, they are not cures, like antibiotics can be a cure for strep throat. In Ohio, there is a common misconception that ‘flu’ is an illness with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. As a child, my parents called this illness ‘flu’ or ‘stomach flu’ but medically speaking this is gastroenteritis caused by a completely different set of viruses. There is no treatment for this illness, only what us doctors call supportive care—fluids, anti-nausea pills, chicken broth.
So, I promised you some history. Next year will mark the 100-year anniversary of the great flu pandemic that occurred from January of 1918 to December of 1920. This was also called the
Spanish flu, although Spain was not the source of the epidemic or hit harder than other countries. Allies involved in World War I censored information about the illness, as it killed many young soldiers conscripted into crowded camps where there was poor nutrition and dirty conditions. I have noticed in old churches, if you look at the plaques showing WWI dead, you will often see flu listed as the cause of death along with those that died in battle.
This pandemic spread throughout the populated world, even to small islands in the Pacific and remote Alaskan villages, killing 3-5% of world’s population. Pregnant women had the highest mortality, estimated at 23-71%. Countries that put in place travel bans entering their ports fared better than those not so quick to act. War, with the movement of troops and supplies, is thought to have been the perfect storm for spreading illness and this virus was more deadly to younger adults. The reasons for this are debated, but one theory is that this virus caused an overwhelming immune response. Since older adults’ immune responses are not as robust, that may have protected them. This group was also exposed to the Russian flu outbreak of 1889-90 and the antibodies developed in response may have provided them protection.
We cannot know when the next big one is coming, although almost all experts agree it will. When you are considering next fall whether or not to get that vaccine, think back to 1918.