Thursday, November 26, 2009

Influenza Pandemic

The Great Influenza Pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918 is thought to have killed from 30 to 100 million people. About 50,000 Canadians died in a matter of months, and millions more were sick, many of the survivors suffering lifelong health problems. So it came as a surprise to me that this catastrophe mostly didn’t make the front-page news of the Toronto Star, even though public places like schools, cinemas, and churches closed down, and hotels were turned into temporary hospitals. Was the press somewhat gagged to prevent panic, or had Canadians become so inured to death after 68,000 war fatalities that 1000 more in Toronto over just three weeks was no longer alarming?

What was truly terrifying about that virulent flu was that it killed mostly young (20 - 40 year old) and otherwise healthy people, usually with ferocious speed. Stories about people dropping dead at bus stops, or feeling unwell and going to sleep, never to awaken, were not uncommon. But most deaths weren’t so gentle. Excruciating headaches, pain so severe that victims felt their bones were breaking, hemorrhaging from lungs, noses, and ears, such violent coughing that muscles and cartilage were torn apart. Many turned blue-black, this “heliotrope cyanosis” being invariably fatal. Pregnant women were particularly doomed if they fell ill, with an estimated 70% fatality rate.

The epidemic wasn’t as severe in Canada as in parts of the United States, like Philadelphia, where clergy driving horse-drawn carts called for people to bring out their dead, who were buried in mass graves - so reminiscent of the Black Plague, which in some ways this one resembled.

While the current swine flu pandemic hasn’t claimed that many lives - yet - it is disturbingly similar in many ways. It also targets young adults, some of whom have perished despite modern drugs and interventions. Recently, a local 23-year-old went to bed with flu symptoms and died in his sleep.

Part of the tragedy of the 1918 pandemic is that it decimated the young - the generation that had already sacrificed so much in the war, which is something that figures in my novel, Elusive Dawn.

For a comprehensive look at the Spanish Flu, read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.

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