In 1834, Quaker writer John Wilkinson wrote in a letter the following statement: “One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist…”. Various figures applied this statement to different subjects in magazine articles, short stories and most recently the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.”
I would apply the phrase to an illness that most people regard as a seasonal nuisance rather than an ancient enemy.
The greatest strategy influenza ever employed was to let the world forget its true danger. The public consciousness has neglected the topic of influenza research, and our government is not supporting the development of a universal influenza vaccine as they should be, leaving the entire world at risk.
The generations who remember the Spanish Flu outbreak are no longer with us and neither is the wariness they carried. The Spanish Flu arrived near the end of World War I, allowing the virus to take root among malnourished soldiers in the trenches and then ship travel facilitated the virus’s global spread through returning military personnel. This influenza strain’s symptoms were so horrific that at first, the illness hardly resembled influenza. Many died of bacterial pneumonia, as the virus made them vulnerable to other pathogens, while the influenza itself killed through a massive hemorrhage and fluid build-up in the lungs. Patients coughed and gasped, bled from the nose, mouth and ears, and died by the millions.
To add to the horror, unlike most illnesses which affect infants, the elderly and the sick, the Spanish Flu took the young and strong. The primary means of mortality was an overreaction of the immune system, therefore the stronger one’s immune system, the more severe the symptoms. Having just lost 20 million people in the trenches and near the battlefields of World War I, the world reeled as this new virus robbed them of at least 50 million more according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — mostly young men and women. Urban and rural communities alike fell into disarray as their workforces fell ill and died. Not enough medical workers still stood to care for the sick, not enough undertakers remained to bury the dead, not enough cemeteries were available to receive the world’s young and beautiful, war and pestilence having snuffed them out. In some remote areas like Alaska’s northern reaches, civilization nearly ceased to exist. In one village, Point Possession, only a single family survived.
The pandemic of 1918 that killed nearly 2% of the world population’s centennial anniversary passed with little word, and to think the public has dismissed this nightmarish episode of human history as irrelevant frightens me. The Spanish Flu was a modern pandemic, and one of the driving factors behind its spread was a modern development that has only become more efficient at spreading disease: rapid travel. Influenza is ever-changing; were a novel strain to emerge with similar mortality as that of 1918, 2% equates to 156 million deaths in today’s world population. Our complacency with seasonal flu exposes us all to a grievous threat. We as citizens have a responsibility to vaccinate ourselves against influenza, and we must support the development of universal influenza vaccines. Furthermore, we must remember that influenza outbreaks are not a figment of the past, and we must seek to arm ourselves against such a versatile virus for the question is not if, but when will influenza put a gun to the world’s head once more.