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January 1918 - Flu Season Begins, for THE Flu

influenza wwi

Enza Spreads Its Wings

The CDC is hoping the US might be past the peak of flu season for 2018. In January 1918, however, flu season wasn't even notable. Except in Haskell County, in the southwestern corner of Kansas, on the other end of the state from what is now the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

In late January 1918, Loring Miner, a doctor in Haskell County, started dealing with an unusual intensity of common symptoms - headache, body aches, high fever, and a nonproductive cough. It looked like flu, but it worked fast, and killed an unusually high fraction of the sick, and the dead were not just the young, old, or weak. By mid-March, thankfully, Haskell County was over it. But it worried Miner enough to report it.

In the first six months of 1918, Miner's warning of "influenza of severe type" was the only reference in that journal to influenza anywhere in the world. Other medical journals that spring carried articles on influenza outbreaks, but they all occurred after Haskell's, and they were not issued as public health warnings. Haskell County remains the first outbreak in 1918 suggesting that a new influenza virus was adapting, violently, to man.

To Fort Riley

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History admits that there are other theories, of an origin in China or Britain, for the "Spanish Flu," but presents Haskell County, Kansas, as the most likely source. Without today's technology to identify one strain from another, tracing the exact origin of the flu a hundred years ago is impossible. But comparing reports of flu with maps is certainly suggestive.

Influenza sufferers at Fort RileyWithin weeks after soldiers from the Fort Riley area visited home in Haskell County and returned, thousands of soldiers at Fort Riley were down with flu. (The picture at right is of Camp Funston at Fort Riley, very possibly from this particular time.) The flu spread to other bases in America, then crossed the Atlantic with the soldiers and over the summer spread across Europe. But it didn't kill many; except in Haskell County, it was noted mainly for being mild. In fact, doctors weren't even sure if something so mild could be influenza. Still, in wartime, officials can't talk about large outbreaks of even a mild disease, as that would publicize how many soldiers are out of commission. The "Spanish Flu" was named because neutral Spain was the first country to admit in newspapers to having the disease.

Relax, Flu Season Is Over

And by August, a British medical journal said that the influenza epidemic was over. But, 

the virus had not disappeared. It had only gone underground, like a forest fire left burning in the roots, swarming and mutating, adapting, honing itself, watching and waiting, waiting to burst into flame.

That first wave of the flu left behind a benefit that would only be recognized in hindsight, as victims of the spring's flu showed greater resistance in the plague yet to come. Read more in The Great Influenza.

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