Look back to 1918 & Spanish Flu

Published on
October 14, 2022
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Look back to 1918 & Spanish Flu

Hello Neighbors!

This week’s column seems much too timely, given the state of things today, but it was our determination that the following information may prove useful to the public. What we’ve selected for today are excerpts from a lengthy interview which ran in the Bridgton News on Oct. 18, 1918, in which the then Surgeon General of the United States gave his official recommendations for identifying, avoiding and surviving the then worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic.

Lest we forget, the context of this article, the Spanish flu killed three people in Bridgton that week alone. Dozens of our citizens would die over the following months, with hundreds of recorded infections in Bridgton during the close of 1918. While the Spanish Flu hit our community far harder than the present virus is doing, it is striking to consider how similar our response was as compared to our present guidelines. Accordingly, we have selected several highlights from the interview for your consideration. Stay safe!

Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu

U.S. Public Health Service Issues Official Health Bulletin on Influenza

Latest Word on Subject

Washington, D.C. — Special — Although King Alfonso of Spain was one of the victims of the influenza epidemic in 1893 and again this summer, Spanish authorities repudiate any claim to influenza as a “Spanish” disease. If the people of this country do not take care, the epidemic will become so widespread throughout the United States that soon we shall hear the disease called ‘American’ influenza.

In response to a request for definite information concerning Spanish influenza, Surgeon General Rupert Blue of the U.S. Public Health Service has authorized the following official interview:

What is Spanish influenza? Is it something new? Does it come from Spain? “The disease now occurring in this country and called Spanish Influenza resembles a very contagions kind of ‘cold,’ accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body and a feeling of severe sickness.  In most of the cases, the symptoms disappear after three or four days, the patient then rapidly recovering. Some of the patients, however, develop pneumonia, or inflammation of the ear, or meningitis, and many of these complicated cases die. Whether this so-called ‘Spanish’ influenza is identical with the epidemics of influenza of early years is not yet known.

Epidemics of influenza have visited this country since 1647. It is interesting to know that this first epidemic was brought here from Valencin, Spain. Since that time, there have been numerous epidemics of the disease. In 1889 and 1890, an epidemic of influenza, starting somewhere in the Orient, spread first to Russia and thence over practically the entire civilized world.  Three years later, there was another flare-up of the disease. Both times, the epidemic spread widely over the United States.

How can the Spanish Influenza be recognized? “There is as yet no certain way in which a single case of Spanish Influenza can be recognized. On the other hand, recognition is easy where there is a group of cases. In contrast to the outbreaks of ordinary coughs and colds, which usually occur in the cold months, epidemics of influenza may occur at any season of the year. Thus, the present epidemic raged most intensely in Europe in May, June and July.  Moreover, in the case of ordinary colds, the general symptoms (fever, pain, depression) are by no means as severe or as sudden in their onset as they are in influenza. Finally, ordinary colds do not spread through the community so rapidly or so extensively as does influenza.”

What is the course of the disease? Do people die of it? “Ordinarily, the fever lasts from three to four days and the patient recovers.  But while the proportion of deaths in the present epidemic has generally been low, in some places the outbreak has been severe and deaths have been numerous.  When death occurs, it is usually the result of a complication. No matter what particular kind of germ causes the epidemic, it is now believed that influenza is always spread from person to person, the germs being carried with the air along with the very small droplets of mucous expelled by coughing or sneezing, forceful talking, and the like by one who already has the germs of the disease. They may also be carried about in the air from coughing or sneezing, or from careless people who spit on the floor and on the sidewalk. As in most other catching diseases, a person who has only a mild attack of the disease himself may give a very severe attack to others.”

What should be done by those who catch the disease? “It is very important that every person who become sick with influenza should go home at once and go to bed. This will help keep away dangerous complications and will, at the same time, keep the patient from scattering the disease far and wide. It is highly desirable that no one be allowed to sleep in the same room with the patient. In fact, no one but the nurse should be allowed in the room. If there is cough and sputum or running of the eyes and nose, care should be taken that all such discharges are collected on bits of gauze or rag or paper napkins and burned.  Only such medicines should be given as prescribed by the doctor. It is foolish to ask the druggist to prescribe and may be dangerous to take the so called ‘safe, sure and harmless’ remedies advertised by patent medicine manufacturers.

If the patient is so situated that he can be attended only by someone who must look after others in the family, it is advisable that such attendant wear a wrapper, apron or gown over the ordinary house clothes while in the sick room and slip this off when leaving to look after the others. Nurses and attendants will do well to guard against breathing in dangerous disease germs by wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient.”

How can one guard against influenza? So far, as a disease like influenza is concerned, health authorities everywhere recognize the very close relation between its spread and overcrowded homes. While it is not always possible, especially in times like the present, to avoid such overcrowding, people should consider the health danger and make every effort to reduce the home overcrowding to a minimum. The value of fresh air through open windows cannot be overemphasized. When crowding is unavoidable, as in street cars, care should be taken to keep the face so turned as not to inhale directly the air breather out by another person. It is especially important to be aware of the person who coughs or sneezes without covering his mouth and nose. It also follows that one should keep out of crowds and stuffy places as much as possible, keep homes, offices and workshops well aired, spend some time out of doors each day, walk to work if at all practicable — in short, make every possible effort to breathe as much pure air as possible. In all heath matters, follow the advice of your doctor and obey the regulations of your local and state health officers.

In our view, “words of wisdom” these still are. Till next time!

Mike Davis is assistant executive director of the Bridgton Historical Society. In recognition of The Bridgton News’ 150th year of publishing, Mike takes a weekly look back into The News’ archives to look at life in ye olden days.