This flu season is the 100th anniversary of one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in modern history. The flu pandemic of 1918 first appeared during March of that year but began spreading faster and wider in October.
While the seasonal flu affects people each year, a pandemic happens when a new type of virus shows up that people haven’t built an immunity to yet. If some people aren’t immune to it, the virus spreads more easily, and more people get sick.
During the 1918-1919 flu season, 300 million people became sick and about 50 million people died from the flu. In the United States, it killed an estimated 675,000 people. The epidemic occurred near the end of World War I, and it is estimated that more American soldiers died from the flu, than were killed in combat during the war.
The war is one factor that contributed to the large number of illnesses from the flu. As many soldiers traveled internationally, some brought the illness with them from home. Military bases and camps which were often crowded, created the perfect environment for the illness to spread to a large number of people very quickly.
Other reasons for the rapid spread of the disease were the lack of a vaccine, no anti-viral drugs, no prevention efforts (such as hand washing, and overall good hygiene), and a lack of communication between hospitals and other health care centers. At the time the flu wasn’t very well understood. Many people believed that it was caused by a bacteria, not a virus.
Locally, the pandemic had a big impact on schools in Clermont County. To prevent further spread of the flu, all schools in Clermont County closed for several weeks during the fall of 1918. Some schools closed for as many as seven weeks, before reopening. The long closures caused concern that seniors wouldn’t have enough days at school to be able to graduate in the spring.
The villages of Milford and Loveland were greatly affected and banned public events from taking place during the height of the pandemic. By the end of October, the village of Milford had reported 24 deaths from the flu just in the village limits. Funeral homes in Milford were so overwhelmed they had to ask for help from other funeral homes in the area.
The village of Williamsburg had six deaths in a one-week time frame in early November. In total, there were more than 100 cases of the flu, just in the village of Williamsburg.
Since the deadly pandemic of 1918, there have been many improvements to public health to help minimize the effects of another worldwide outbreak. The development of the first flu vaccine in 1938, was an important step in reducing the risk of a deadly flu outbreak. The new flu vaccine was widely used a few years later to protect American soldiers during World War II.
As a result of the pandemic, a new Ohio law was passed in 1919 that required all existing health units to combine into 88 general health districts – one for each county in Ohio. By March of 1920, the Clermont County General Health District (now Clermont County Public Health) was formed and had its first meeting of the Board of Health.
Today, each county or city health department works closely with the Ohio Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to monitor illnesses, including the flu in the community. Health departments, along with other health care providers, give flu vaccines each year, to help prevent the spread of the flu.
While vaccines can’t prevent another pandemic from occurring, they can help minimize the effects and limit the spread of seasonal flu each year. Other but less severe pandemics have occurred in 1957, 1961, and most recently in 2009.
You can help prevent the spread of flu by getting vaccinated each year and remembering to wash your hands frequently. If you’d like to schedule an appointment for your flu shot, you can call our nursing division at 513-735-8400.
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Sources: Centers for Disease Control and The Clermont Sun archives