THE 1918 INFLUENZA OUTBREAK
The Spanish Flu Panics Canada
By George Siamandas
Is today’s swine flu an echo of the savage Spanish flu that struck the world in 1918? That fall, as our troops returned from WW1, they brought home a silent killer that would afflict one in six Canadians, killing 30,000-50,000 during the winter of 1918. Such pandemics had visited before. In 1889-90 flu affected 40% of the globe.
The Spanish flu hit Canada Sept 9, killing 9 American soldiers in Quebec City. On the same day 400 students in a Quebec College fell ill. By Oct 9, Brantford Ontario reported 2,500,cases. The flu then raged across the prairies. As the troop trains headed west, during that dreadful October, soldiers brought home the disease to their towns, villages and farms. Tens of thousands fell ill. By early October as the death toll mounted communities started to ban public gatherings. Schools, colleges, and universities closed. Across the country most church bells did not ring on Sundays. But Father Trasiuk of Hamilton’s Stanislaus Church, had defied the ban, and was fined $25.
Hudson Bay stores remained open but for the protection of customers, staff wore masks. So did employees of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and telephone workers. In more than 100 prairie towns, passengers were not allowed to de-train unless they promised to stay put for the duration of the epidemic. Some towns like Lethbridge and Drumheller threw up a total quarantine.
The most vulnerable were healthy 20-30 year olds, the dangerous age according to the Regina Leader. Their symptoms? A cold that turned into flu. Temperatures of 105. Dreadful aches. And then pneumonia where victims suffocated in their own secretions. Some, bleeding from the nose. At the greatest risk were pregnant women who miscarried and almost always died.
ABORIGINALS PERISHED IN HIGH NUMBERS
The flu scorched its way through northern communities devastating aboriginal populations. Amongst aboriginals living in tepees and log cabins in the Peace River district, 85% died.
Some became desperate for medical attention. An aboriginal woman whose husband had died, paddled 33 miles down the Kapuskasing River, with a 6 mile portage to find a doctor for her two children. At the Indian Village of Sand Point, near Lake Nipigon, 58 out of 70 were sick. Luckily, only five died. But according to the custom of the day, Indian caskets were painted black, while white victims had their caskets covered in white cloth.
In Calgary they ran out of coffins. And in many rural areas, with no time to bury the dead, corpses were placed on the roofs of their owners’ log cabins, out of reach of animals till spring.
EVEN THE HEROES
After years at the front, returning soldiers could not embrace their loved ones. Anxious wives would meet husbands at the station unable to touch them, or even get near. One, who did, died, shortly after their reunion. Another case poignantly brought home the flu’s cruel irony. Airman Alan McLeod of Stonewall, Manitoba became at 18, Canada’s youngest Victoria Cross winner. Days after returning to his home town, this young hero, who had shot down three enemy planes and survived a burning plane crash, did not survive the silent killer.
MEDICINE IS POWERLESS
At the peak of the epidemic some doctors saw 80 patients a day and one averaged 58 house calls daily. Few charged for their services. Dr James Colliers practising in Vernon River PEI would take his daughters with him on housecalls so they could do the sweeping or wash dishes. Meanwhile scientists looked desperately for a cure. Winnipeggers Major Dr FT Cadham of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and Doctor Gordon Bell, frantically worked for a vaccine, and found some success. Dr Cadham reported to a national medical conference in 1918 that of their test sample of 528 soldiers admitted to a Winnipeg hospital, no soldier who had taken two doses of the vaccine died. When word got out, Dr Cadham needed a police escort, so desperate were citizens to get the vaccine.
In 1918 almost everyone was nursed at home. People helped their neighbours in whatever way they could. Women volunteered as nurses. Service club members cooked meals in church kitchens and boy scouts delivered the meals. In Ontario the thousands of women volunteers became known as the Sisters of Service. Throughout the country Christmas dinner celebrations were held to thank the volunteers. But there was a sour side too. In Calgary some women posed as private nurses charging as much as $25 per day, while real nurses worked two shifts for only $2. Meanwhile, druggists in Vancouver boosted the price of camphor used as a disinfectant from 60 cents pound to $6.50. Masks sold for a nickel. Preventive measures included bags of camphor, or garlic. At Toronto’s Union Station, tin drinking cups were replaced by disposable paper ones. Cinnamon, tobacco, alcohol and goose grease and turpentine mixtures were touted as cures.
Scarcely a family escaped being touched by the flu. Almost everyone lost a mother, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, or a dad. Thousands were left orphans. Others survived to suffer a lifetime of heart and respiratory problems. In 1918, with no national preparedness in place, all the effort had been at the grass roots level. In 1919 the federal govt finally established a health dept. Hospitals were built. Public health improved.
And where did it start? I remains unclear. The Spanish flu is thought to have originated in burning pile of manure at Fort Riley Kansas in March 1918. American troops got sick, subsequently taking it to Europe. It got tagged the Spanish flu because Spain was first to get hit hard and without censorship, the first country to admit it had an epidemic. By the time it was over, influenza had killed 20-30M worldwide. But its cause remained a mystery. In 1933 a British doctor successfully isolated the disease to an airborne virus. Later it was identified as the A type strain. Today the story of the world’s greatest killer is all but forgotten. There is little mention in history books. It’s as if it never happened. But could it happen again? And if it does, are we ready for it? Do we really have an effective vaccine today? And can we develop it quickly enough when needed?