"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

"Memories of 1918 flu pandemic haunt 21st century"

In earlier times, flu and other infectious diseases routinely killed whole families. Toni Reinhold's story of grandmother struck a note as my own grandmother, a product of her widowed mother's second marriage, born at the end of the 19th century, told me of an epidemic of "Scarlet Fever" that eliminated her mother's first family and husband during the last quarter of the 19th century. No one can know for sure what killed my grandmother's family as infections were categorized by symptoms and identification of viruses and most bacteria was still not possible. A personal tragedy that paled when compared to effect of the 1918 'Spanish Flu' pandemic.

(Photo: Antonia Starece, author's grandmother and her children)

Toni tells of her grandmother's tale of fear and pain of loss that was multiplied millions of times over worldwide:

My grandmother lived through the Great War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War Two, the cultural revolution of the '60s and three decades beyond.

There was little that could threaten her nerve but until the day she died, Marie Starace was afraid of two things. One was lightning. The other was "The Grip" -- the deadly flu that wreaked havoc on the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood where she was born and raised.

So vivid were her memories of the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 that whenever she saw us with open coats and throats exposed to the cold, she would gravely warn: "Button up or you'll get the grip." When I was a teenager -- about 50 years after the horrible episode -- I had the sense to ask what this dreaded "grip" was.

"It was a terrible thing. So many people died from the grip when I was a little girl that it seemed like every family lost someone," my grandmother told me.

"It was heartbreaking to see mothers crying for their children. Some of them lost two and three children. I'll never forget one woman crying in my mother's arms because she lost her children and her husband."

"People didn't want to say when someone in their house was sick because the place would be quarantined and no one could get out to work," Granna recalled.

"Some people went out in the middle of the night to get the undertaker because they didn't want it to get around that someone in their house had died from the flu. They were afraid of being reported to the Health Department and quarantined."


The flu that killed an estimated 20 million to 100 million people worldwide was known in the United States as the Spanish flu or "La Grippe" because it ravaged Spain early on.

Studies show that it was caused by an avian flu virus -- the H1N1 strain -- that could be passed from human to human. The fear today is that the current H5N1 strain of bird flu could mutate and do the same.

In 1918, word of the illness in Europe was carried to Brooklyn's shores by troops returning from the battlefields of World War One and seamen who helped breathe life into New York City's ports. It was suspected that some of them carried the flu as well.

Read the rest.

The author's grandmother advised her to "Button up or you'll get The Grip". My grandmother's homespun wisdom was: "Eat or you'll get sick". They did the best they could, treating the symptoms with potions, plasters, quarantine, and chicken soup. They didn't understand why sickness came, but they did what the had to do, and it's amazing that any survived.

Although modern medicine can never totally eliminate the flu, we are fortunate to live in era where containment is possible with measures of prevention and a lot of luck.

Get ready, the flu is coming. Apparently it has mutated to a more efficient strain

Bird Flu News Coverage


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