History Matters Special Edition: The Spanish Flu, Polio and COVID-19

by David Bruce Smith, co-founder of the Grateful American Book Prize

The past is prologue to the future, and–here we are–102 years later, in the midst of another calamitous pandemic. The Spanish Flu reached the U.S. in March of 1918; now, just after another Ides of March, the country is plagued—literally—by another deadly influenza.

This one is COVID-19.

We’ve come far since the Spanish Flu surprised the world a century ago; little was known about how to defend against–or rub out–a disease. And so, it tore through the country for more than a year:

“In 1918, as scientists had not yet discovered flu viruses, there were no laboratory tests to detect, or characterize these viruses. There were no vaccines to help prevent flu infection, no antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with flu infections,”
according to the Centers for Disease Control [CDC].

Now, the world is far more intricate. Shortly after the early cases of COVID-19 were reported, cities, states, and the federal government, asked people to adopt nonpharmaceutical interventions to avoid a possible infection, while laboratories–the world over–ramped up research—to somehow–reveal a vaccine.

In 1918, it took America’s public health officials nine months to educate the populace about the dangers of unprotected coughing and sneezing; the public was told to bend its routines and avoid crowds. Now, prevention from four generations back is in vogue.

No doubt, the Spanish Flu whipped up a destructive pandemic. “The Runner Up” goes to poliomyelitis, a viral disease that caused paralysis, mostly in children. During the polio epidemic of 1916, 27,000 were reported, but it didn’t peak until 1952 at 57,000.

A year later, Dr. Jonas Salk, head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, announced that he had successfully developed a vaccine. After clinical trials to prove its effectiveness, a national inoculation campaign was begun in 1955; the number of cases consistently declined through 1979—the year the disease was declared: eradicated.

For a better understanding of the Spanish Flu, Polio, and COVID-19 pandemics, the Grateful American Book Prize recommends, Makila Lucier’s novel, A Death-Struck Year, and Jeffrey Kluger’s Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio.

 

Published on March 24, 2020

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