Modern health crisis like 1918 Spanish flu outbreak

Published 9:43 am Monday, March 30, 2020

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The modern coronavirus has knocked large swaths of society back on its heels and reeling, wondering how indeed the very fabric of society won’t be irreparably frayed or ripped – school children are not in the classroom, leaving educators and parents scrambling to find ways to keep children educated and supervised; business owners are closing up shop and wondering if they’ll ever again open their doors to customers; workers are laid-off or working only a handful of hours, bloating unemployment rosters and adding to the public’s collective anxiety; the economy is in shambles, hospitals are running low on supplies and space and business and elected officials are frantically searching for answers and solutions – but throughout the course of history, Americans have weathered many a harsh storm and somehow come out the other side.

As it relates to enduring pandemics, plagues, diseases and infections, the current crisis most closely resembles the 1918 outbreak of Spanish influenza, which reached the state in September 1918 and had infected some 37,000 Alabamians by the end of October.

Across the nation, an estimated 675,000 Americans died of flu as a result of the 1918 outbreak.

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According to Gery Anderson, local history buff and member of the Selma-Dallas County Historic Preservation Society, the outbreak wreaked more than its fair share of havoc on the Queen City.

“It hit Selma very, very hard,” Anderson said. “Just like today, they closed schools, churches, theaters, movie houses – people were terrified. Here we are in 2020 and I don’t think it’s much different.”

Indeed, the first case of the Spanish flu in Alabama was documented near the end of September 1918 in the Huntsville area and by Oct. 5, 1918, more than 1,100 cases and seven deaths had been counted there.

Three days later, a story ran in The Selma Journal, a precursor to the modern Times-Journal, which would officially come into existence two years later, under the headline “Influenza is gaining way in Selma now.”

“There are a number of cases of Spanish Influenza in Selma, the exact number of cases being unobtainable,” the story stated. “It is estimated however that there are as many as seventy cases in the village of the Aimes Cotton Mill in North Selma, besides scattered cases over the city.”

The article goes on to note that a meeting was to be held that night where local doctors would provide recommendations on “preventing an epidemic of influenza” in the city.

The following day, the Journal ran a story on the health board’s meeting under the headline “Picture houses and all public places closed: Schools are shut down and all meetings are canceled until school is over.”

“Every school is closed tight today and no public assemblings of any description will be allowed in Selma until relief is certain from an epidemic of influenza which the county health board fears may visit Selma,” the article read. “At the meeting of the board of health Tuesday evening, resolutions were made to the city officials to close schools, picture shows, theatres, churches, community sings, lodges, clubs and all other kinds of public meetings…until the danger of an epidemic from Spanish influenza is past. An epidemic has not developed here yet and most of the cases are confined to one section.”

The article goes on to note that school children were sent home from school “until relief is in sight, which will probably not be long” and adds that the scheduled visit by the Ringling Bros. Circus had been cancelled.

By Oct. 11, 1918, the local newspaper was reporting some 400 cases of Spanish flu in the city and stating that the number of cases “represents quite a new number of cases today and shows that there is a steady increase in the disease in Selma.”

The flu raged in Selma for weeks but a small article in the Journal on Oct. 30, 1918, under the headlines “The flu is passing,” indicated that Selma was on the road to recovery as November began.

The article discusses how Huntsville was hit hard by the disease and suffered a “heavy” death rate because of it before turning an eye toward Selma, where the virus seemed to be waning.

“The people of Selma who have been more fortunate greatly rejoice that the terrible plague has about spent its force and the people have gone back to their usual vocations,” the story stated. “Like Huntsville, Selma has suffered some and it was necessary here, too, to close the churches, schools and all places of amusement, but in the face of the greatly improved conditions, it is believed that the Board of Health can well declare the ban off after this week and it is more than likely that the doors of the churches will be thrown open on next Sunday, followed by the opening of all other places where it was necessary to inaugurate the closing order.”

The newspaper’s prognostications seemed to be correct, the ban was lifted on Nov. 5, 1918, only to be reinstated just over a month later on Dec. 11, 1918 – that ban would hold until Jan 2. 1919.

An article in the Dec. 11, 1918, edition of The Journal under the headline “Plague bans placed today on all crowds: Every public gathering prohibited and many restrictions levied” alerted residents to the reinstatement of closures and cancellations across the city.

A special meeting of the council had been called that morning to pass the ordinance required to institute the bans, which had been put forth by the censors board of the medical society during a meeting the night before.

“There was evidence of cooperation and consistency among the doctors present at the meeting held Tuesday night, carrying with it the good will to do everything consistent to good business and at the same time wipe out the influenza plague, which will probably influence the hearty cooperation of the people at whose expense these bans are levied,” the article read.

The article noted that local merchants were optimistic that the bans would have a limited impact on Christmas shopping that year, despite the fact that the bans prohibited spectators at local pool matches, where only four players were allowed at each table, as well as crowds at “stores, soda founts, on streets, in lodges, clubs, at depots, or anywhere else.”

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), nearly 17,000 people died of either influenza or pneumonia during 1918 and 1919.

“The pandemic we’re in now may top it, but the pandemic of 1918 is still the biggest in the country,” Anderson said. “This was a turning point for public health. It really set off a much stricter look at public health and what we needed to do in the United States.”

According to Anderson, the modern Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was established in Atlanta after the 1918 pandemic specifically because American health officials saw the impact that plagues and pandemics, particularly malaria and yellow fever, were having on the American South.

According to Anderson, the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu was “the catalyst” that introduced advancements in personal health and hygiene, as well as a “stringent public health code.”

Beyond the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 and the outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever, Americans have endured a number of lesser plagues, outbreaks and pandemics, including scarlet fever, cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever, diphtheria, polio, measles, whooping cough, swine flu, H1N1, SARS and MERS.

Each brought with it its own set of complications, worries and tragedies, but so too was each one conquered with its own set of solutions, practices and studies, all of which have contributed to the health and well-being of the generations that came later.