Flu Killed Millions During World War I
While the Great War ravaged Europe 100 years ago, Iowans found themselves fighting a much deadlier foe at home.
In 1918, the Spanish Flu triggered a pandemic that killed an estimated 20–50 million people worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States — more than 10 times the number of U.S. military personnel killed during World War I. Here in Iowa, the flu killed more than 7,500 Iowans and 702 soldiers at Camp Dodge.
Researchers believed the outbreak started at an Army base in Kansas and was carried to Western Europe by U.S. troops. Others thought it may have started in China in 1917 and spread to France by Chinese laborers. While its exact origins remain unknown, it was dubbed the “Spanish Flu” after Spain’s King Alfonso XIII contracted it.
Alfonso recovered, but the virus disproportionately attacked otherwise healthy people in their 20s and 30s, the demographic that usually suffers the least from seasonal flu outbreaks. But in this case, most young adults — including most soldiers — had not been exposed to a similar virus earlier in their lives, leaving their immune systems off guard.
Older adults and children fared better.
“If you were old enough you had some degree of immunity,” State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati said. “If you were young enough, you had probably already been exposed to a similar virus and your immune system was ready for it.”
The Spanish Flu’s first wave appeared in January 1918. Its symptoms included fever, aches and upper-respiratory infections typically associated with the flu. By September, it had mutated into a more sinister strain that attacked the lungs and caused severe pneumonia. Victims around the world died from choking on their own bodily fluids.
In Iowa, cities and towns such as Ames, Atlantic, Des Moines, Iowa City and Sioux City established quarantines to prevent the disease from spreading. Churches canceled services. Dance halls and schools closed. Theaters shut down.
Camp Dodge saw its first case of Spanish Flu in September 1918. From there, the virus swept through the post through early November and killed 702 soldiers, or about 2 percent of the post’s 33,500 personnel.
“The worst period of deaths occurred during October 8–16 when we were seeing 50 deaths per day at the peak of the pandemic,” Iowa Gold Star Military Museum Curator Michael Vogt said. “About 8,000 troops were sick with the flu during the peak period, and the rapid spread and lethality of the virus caught medical and undertaking resources unprepared.”
All flu casualties at Camp Dodge received a death certificate and were transported and buried at locations directed by family or at a U.S. military cemetery, Vogt said. There were no burials of flu victims at Camp Dodge.
About 10 years ago, researchers tested the Spanish Flu on seven monkeys in a biosafety lab in Winnipeg, Canada, looking to find new ways to defeat modern-day flu outbreaks that spread from human to human. They confirmed that the 1918 Spanish Flu had spread faster than a normal flu bug and sent the victims’ immune systems into hyper-drive, filling their lungs with fluids as they fought off the invading virus.
Today, genes from the Spanish Flu continue to circulate in human and pig populations. Some of them mutated with other pandemic viruses, such as the 1957–58 “Asian flu,” the 1968–69 “Hong Kong flu” and the 2009 “Swine flu.”
Public health professionals monitor flu outbreaks closely, working hand-in-hand with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While modern medicine has made major progress in containing the flu, the virus mutates quickly and can peak during any year.
Last year, for example, the CDC reported influenza killed 80,000 people nationwide and put 900,000 in the hospital, the highest number in years. The number of people killed by the flu included 180 children, and most of them were unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
In Iowa, the state confirmed 270 flu deaths in 2017–2018, more than twice the 133 from the previous year. Just 44 flu deaths were confirmed in Iowa in 2016–2017.
“This shows why getting a flu vaccination every year is so important,” Pedati said. “The vaccine provides some protection. Even if you do get sick, the vaccine will help you from getting it so bad.”
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— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs