By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Seems like everyone has the flu these days. We’ve had dinner dates and golf games cancelled in record numbers the past few weeks – all parties citing the current flu epidemic as the culprit. I was beginning to think we had just offended a record number of people but it turns out that the flu bug this year is unrelenting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s widespread flu activity from this season’s outbreak in all of the continental U.S. – something that hasn’t happened in the CDC’s 13 years of tracking the spread of influenza. You know it’s serious when the CDC postpones a briefing on the public health response to a nuclear detonation to instead discuss the response to severe influenza, as happened this past Tuesday. Tragically, 30 children have died from the flu and the experts believe that number could be doubled due to cases that have gone unreported. As of this week, thankfully the flu is predicted to peak and the less serious strain will become dominant for the remainder of the flu season.
We all know how to prevent the flu – common sense measures such as getting lots of rest, drinking fluids, and staying away from crowds until the symptoms subside. I have some friends who have recently been brave enough to travel by plane. Or as a doctor friend of ours calls them – “flying petri dishes”. One person has emerged unscathed but everyone else who has flown the flu-ey skies has come down with something close to the bubonic plague. Sometimes you just can’t help picking up the bug, as careful as you might be. Me – I’m something akin to Howard Hughes these days. I touch nothing and no one out in public. The other day I was in Walgreens behind a woman who appeared to be coughing up her lung. To make matters worse, she was coughing into her hand, rather than using the suggested “Dracula” method of coughing into one’s elbow. In any event, when I got to the check-out counter the clerk asked me to punch my telephone number into their keypad. I asked her why I would do that when Typhoid Mary had just had her germ-ridden fingers all over that same keypad. The clerk explained that’s why they wipe the keypad off with sanitizer pads every so often. I pointed out that she had not wiped it since the previous customer had slimed all over it but she just stared at me. I’m no fool – I learned long ago not to argue with an officious clerk so I decided to forgo my “Walgreens points” and went on my merry, germ-free, way.
But all this flu talk had me thinking about what it must have been like during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, before Nyquil and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup were invented. First off all, it’s hard to comprehend the massive numbers of people world-wide who were infected. In the two years that this scourge ravaged the earth, a fifth of the world’s population was infected! The flu infected 28% of all Americans and an estimated 675,000 Americans died from it, ten times as many as in the world war. In fact, of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them (43,000) fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy. The effect of so many young people succumbing was that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years. The Spanish flu virus is still considered to be one of the most virulent in history; entire families were wiped out in less than a week after contracting the flu.
By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity. In 2008, researchers announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: a group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia. Since then we’ve had further, if less fatal, flu virus outbreaks. A flu pandemic from 1957 to 1958 killed around 2 million people worldwide, including some 70,000 people in the U.S., and a pandemic from 1968 to 1969 killed approximately 1 million people, including some 34,000 Americans. More than 12,000 Americans perished during the H1N1 (or “swine flu”) pandemic that occurred from 2009 to 2010.
So, there you have it – everything you ever wanted to know about flu and its deadly consequences. The good news is that for most people it’s a virus and will clear up on its own within a week or two. Or, as my brother used to advise, sit in bed with a bottle of whiskey at the foot of it. Drink until you see two bottles. It may not cure the flu but in the morning you’ll either be better or the hangover will make the flu seem like child’s play. As for me, I’m wearing my rubber gloves next time I go to Walgreen’s.