Combating the flu

Public health officials regarded it as a national epidemic and offered suggestions for treatment, as this cartoon published by the Topeka Health Service of Shawnee County illustrates. In a time before antibiotics, the recommended treatments included keeping warm, staying hydrated and well fed, and being exposed to fresh air. All were meant to combat and prevent the further spread of the influenza in 1918.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on the Spanish flu of 1918

Part 1: Similarities

An outbreak of influenza closed churches, schools, movie theaters, restaurants and bars.

Many homes were ordered to be under “quarantine.”

The Kansas health officer advised the public to regularly wash their hands. He advised the public not to wipe their hands across the mouth or wipe he nose or shake hands.

Dr. Samuel Crumbine, Kansas’s health officer at the time, also advised the public, “don’t spit on the sidewalk” and don’t drink from “common” drinking cups.

In March 1918 Kansas was the epicenter of the deadly outbreak of Spanish flu.

That health advice can be seen today as “Don’t spit on the sidewalk” can be found printed on vintage bricks.

Local historian and author Marilyn Holt said there are many similarities to the outbreak 102 years ago and that of COVID-19 today.

Holt did extensive research of the influenza believed to have started in Kansas and spread across the world in 1918, very similar to how COVID-19 spread worldwide today.

She is the author of “Women as Casualties of World War I and Spanish Influenza: A Kansas Study” published in 2017.

Doctors in 1918 underestimated the new strain of influenza.

“This is something they hadn’t dealt with before,” Holt said. “Initially, not only doctors in Kansas, but across the United States, thought it was the same kind of flu as the flu pandemic in the 1890s worldwide. But it wasn’t anything like 1890.”

She said Dr. Crumbine did recognize how the virus was spreading.

“But it just hit so hard,” she said. “But he at least put a lot of these health safeguards in place in Kansas. People were aware you ought to be washing your hands. You shouldn’t be spitting on the sidewalks, spreading gems.”

Holt immediately noticed the similarities of the Spanish flu and COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I think anyone, not just me, who is even a little familiar with the influenza epidemic of 1918 will see the similarities,” she said. “Extract the war from that: closings, quarantines, washing your hands, finding the epidemic worldwide. It’s not that you find it in only one state.”

Similarities

• Both are strains of influenza

• Outbreaks started early in the year: February and March

• Very contagious

• Spread very quickly

• Public advised to take more sanitary precautions such as hand washing and other public health safeguards.

• Schools, churches, restaurants, bars and movie theaters close

• People and homes under quarantine

• Not enough supplies

• Hospitals are overcrowded and remote hospitals are established to separate the patients sick from other things from the flu patients

• Doctors, nurses and medical technicians come out of retirement because hospitals needed more help

Started in Kansas

One popular theory is that the 1918 epidemic began in Kansas at Camp Funston at Fort Riley, just over 30 miles east of Abilene.

“All the troops are training there and then they are being dispersed; sent across the country by railroad to get on the boats to go to Europe,” she said.

According to History.com, the morning of March 4, Private Albert Gitchell of the U.S. Army at Fort Riley complained of cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, over 100 of his fellow soldiers had reported similar symptoms.

In one week 500 soldiers were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms.

Holt said at least 15,000 troops at Fort Riley had symptoms of the flu.

“That doesn’t even count the civilian employees, the military nurses,” she said.

Holt’s primary study was on the women in Kansas who died in service to the country during the Spanish flu and World War I era.

“There were nurses who died at Fort Riley because they were there trying to help the troops,” she said.

The flu killed 675,000 Americans and an estimated 20 to 50 million worldwide.

A popular theory is that Dr. Loring Miner first noticed his patients in Haskell County were suffering from an influenza unlike he had ever seen before.

“Not only in Haskell County but surrounding counties where people are together and it was carried by recruits that are going to train at Camp Funston. It just skyrocketed from there,” Holt said.

“One theory is that it began in China and was brought to Europe by Chinese workers who were working with the Allies,” Holt said. “They were digging trenches. They were hired as workers.”

“It probably did begin in the United States and Kansas was considered to be the epicenter of that,” she said.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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