A deadly epidemic

I am glad to live in a time when germs and the spread of infectious diseases are better known than 500, 100, even 50 years ago. I have to shut my eyes anytime I watch a historic movie that involves hospital scenes — especially battlefield hospitals, as those attempting to help their fellow man move from patient to patient without any gloves or without even attempting to wash their hands. Not that they didn’t have good intentions — they just didn’t know!

I came across an article recently highlighting the danger of spreading disease, which, unfortunately, occurred during, and was heightened by, World War I. 

The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation’s article, “A Deadlier Enemy than Poison Gas,” begins, “‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases as dangerous as poison gas shells.’ This saying printed in newspapers of the time may have been as catchy as the disease it was warning against: the Spanish influenza.”

According to the article, it was at Fort Riley, Kan., in spring of 1918, when the first wave of the flu appeared, and at this location, training was provided for recruits before they were sent to Europe. As the soldiers traveled, the flu spread. “The disease became known as the Spanish influenza because the Spanish news media was the first to widely report the epidemic,” the article states, describing that the disease was also called grippe or the three-day fever, among other names.

As soldiers returned from the war in the fall of 1918, the second wave of the epidemic hit the United States, arriving first in Boston through the port, and according to the National Archives, the disease was far more severe than it had been in the spring. 

Newspaper reports in September 1918 detail that Spanish influenza was moving through military bases across the United States, and “South Dakota residents were certainly not immune from the effects of the deadly disease as Spanish flu spread across the nation,” the article states. It describes that Delo Townsend was a young high school math teacher and principal at Langford in 1918. In an interview that appeared in the Sept. 9, 1976, Fort Pierre Times, Townsend said, “Sometime in October, many people started getting sick with this pneumonia type illness – cough, aching bones, and high temperatures. Schools had to close. When it got really bad, my school board decided to turn our high school into a hospital.” 

Townsend explained that funerals took place every day for those who succumbed to the disease, and some of the funerals were held outside to avoid further spread of Spanish influenza, with some hardly attended due to people’s fear of contracting the virus.

According to an article in the spring 1987 issue of “South Dakota History,” records of McKennan Hospital (now Avera McKennan Hospital) in Sioux Falls reported 173 cases of Spanish influenza in 1918-1919. 

“The high death rate severely taxed mortuary facilities in Sioux Falls … Many local doctors were still in military service due to World War I and were unable to return home to minister to the sick,” the article, by Susan C. Peterson, states. “Entire families often fell ill, and the greatest number of stricken people stayed home, with the strongest helping the weakest through the crisis. Still, the hospital became so crowded that beds were set up in corridors and all other areas where space was available.”

According to the foundation’s article, symptoms of Spanish influenza included high fever, headache, soreness, sore throat, cough, and inflamed mucous membranes, and interestingly, while the young and old are generally the most susceptible to such diseases, Spanish influenza hit those in their 20s to 40s the hardest. 

“Across South Dakota and the nation, public gatherings were forbidden. Schools, colleges, theaters, churches, pool halls and other public gathering places closed,” the foundation article states. Advice circulated for how to avoid the Spanish flu included keeping in good condition; getting as much fresh air as possible; avoiding people with colds; not staying in stores longer than necessary; breathing through a clean handkerchief when around people with colds or when in a crowd; and keeping off the main streets in order to avoid contact with people, the Oct. 23, 1918, edition of the Daily Huronite states.

Rapid City even enforced an anti-spitting ordinance! “People were arrested or fined for spitting on city sidewalks,” the foundation article states. “By the end of 1918, 1,847 people in South Dakota had died of Spanish influenza, according to the South Dakota Department of Vital Statistics. The four counties with the most influenza deaths were Lawrence with 145, Brown with 118, Beadle with 98 and Minnehaha with 95. Some people with Spanish flu died from pneumonia. The total number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia in 1918 was 2,391.

In 1919, there were 700 deaths from influenza in South Dakota.”

By summer of 1919, the epidemic was considered over, with an estimated 675,000 Americans having died. “The disease claimed more lives than bullets and shells during World War I … An estimated 18 million people died in the Great War, according to the National Archives,” the foundation article states. “The influenza epidemic killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide during a two-year period. One-fifth of the world’s population contracted the deadly virus.”

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