History shows influenza’s real potential

A look back at the great influenza epidemic of 1918

Like many people in Chilliwack, I’ve been hit by the flu this winter.

It was more of a glancing blow than a full-on body slam, but it got my attention nonetheless.

And it got me thinking about how we take for granted an illness that has caused so much pain in the past.

It was 100 years ago this year that the great influenza epidemic of 1918 ripped through the world.

It seems odd to think of it now, but the disease killed nearly as many people in Canada as the previous four years of war in Europe.

Few families were spared, including my own. It claimed my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, leaving my grandfather and his Saskatchewan siblings scattered like chaff to surviving relatives.

Around the world, it’s estimated 50 to 100 million people perished – three to five per cent of the entire world’s population.

Chilliwack was not spared the calamity.

Although it did not draw the kind of attention we give it now, the threat was taken seriously. Chilliwack residents were required to report any cases of influenza to health authorities immediately. “Parties failing to report will be subject to prosecution (with heavy penalties attached), which will be rigidly enforced,” reported the Chilliwack Progress in October of 1918.

“In case of death, interment is called for within 24 hours.”

If that sounds severe it’s because authorities understood they were dealing with a crisis. Although the impact of the epidemic was down-played for a public still in the throes of the most devastating war the world had yet seen, the medical community knew better. The numbers were deliberately downplayed in countries still fighting for fear the reality would damage morale. (Spain wasn’t involved in the conflict so censorship was not so tight. Consequently, reporting gave the impression that there were more cases in Spain, thus christening the disease the “Spanish Influenza.”)

The impact of the epidemic was evident everywhere. Progress pages were peppered with references to people either ill, or who had died. Alice Mills, for example, was a 24-year-old young woman with family in Rosedale. “Miss Mills contracted influenza while assisting in an emergency hospital in Tacoma, death being caused by pneumonia which followed,” the paper reported.

In late October, the Chilliwack Board of Health ordered the closure of all schools, churches, theatres, poolrooms and public auctions. “All public meetings are forbidden until further notice,” it said.

Enterprising business people didn’t miss the opportunity. “Wet feet cause Spanish Influenza,” pronounced an advertisement for rubber boots.

H.J. Barber, “Druggist and Stationer” offered more. “For prevention, physicians and health boards recommend the free use of disinfectants,” the company’s advertisement read. “Also, ‘The Protector,’ a small bag containing antiseptics to be suspended over chest. 25 cents each.”

Flu pandemics have come and gone during the intervening century, but none as severe as the one in 1918.

Still, the disease claims roughly 500,000 lives a year globally. Experts tell us another pandemic is never far away – a reminder that an illness so many of us see as inconvenient, still packs a potentially devastating risk.

Just Posted

Car crashes into building, closes 203 Street in Langley

Police have closed 203 Street at Douglas Crescent

Trapped indoors: smoke from wildfires especially hard on Langley man with respiratory problems

Air quality warning issued for Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley

Driver reported in critical condition following crash in Aldergrove

White Rock man was not wearing seatbelt when he collided with two other vehicles, Langley RCMP said

Rescue dogs from California up for adoption in Abbotsford

Embrace a Discarded Animal Society partners with PetSmart this weekend

Langley rider looks for hometown advantage if she makes World Cup

It won’t be known until Friday if Langley’s L.J. Tidball qualifies for the Longines FEI competition.

Social media, digital photography allow millennials to flock to birdwatching

More young people are flocking to birdwatching than ever, aided by social media, digital photography

$21.5 million medical pot plant to be built in B.C.

The facility is to be built in Princeton

Spokane man enlists 500,000+ box fans to blow wildfire smoke back to B.C.

Spokane man Caleb Moon says he’s had enough with smoky skies from B.C.’s forest fires blanketing his city

Feds agree to look at easing jury secrecy as part of review

At issue is a law that forbids jurors from talking about closed-door deliberations

Forest fuel work needed to slow wildfires, B.C. premier says

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan joins John Horgan for tour

Liberals unveil poverty plan with lofty goals, but no new spending

Government’s goal is to lift 2.1 million people out of poverty by 2030

PHOTOS: Prickly porcupine rescued after hitchhiking down Coquihalla Highway

BC Conservation Officer Service members were able to grab the porcupine and move it to safety

New trial ordered for James Oler in B.C. child bride case

Meanwhile, appeal court dismisses Emily Blackmore’s appeal of guilty verdict

Convicted murderer still missing after escaping B.C. prison 2 weeks ago

Mission RCMP are continuing to search for escaped inmate John Norman MacKenzie

Most Read