Medical science today cannot pin down exactly where it began. One prominent theory states that H1N1 influenza began with swine farms in Haskell County, Kansas in late January 1918. Like other incidents of mutated influenza virus “jumping” from livestock to humans, it could have fizzled out in the local population. Yet nationwide mobilization in response to the United States’ entry into World War I meant that military camps were ubiquitous and population movement intensified. Influenza was transported to Camp Funston, Kansas, where it spread to other camps, other towns.
The first wave of influenza traveled from the United States to Brest, France, in April 1918. Within the next month, it spread to Spain. Spain, neutral during World War I, was less likely to censor press reports of the disease. Hence, although the U.S., Britain, and France saw just as many cases of influenza, such incidents were not reported. The uneven press coverage created the appearance of the disease originating in Spain, giving it the incorrect moniker “Spanish Influenza.”
Influenza was documented in China and India by May 1918. The spring wave, however, was comparatively mild. The second wave of Fall 1918 would be devastating. As the summer of 1918 wore on and Allied victories in Europe continued, state and federal medical officials assumed disaster had been averted.
But the virus would mutate. In fall 1918, incidents of “grip” or “la grippe” increased among home front medical reports. It arrived in Philadelphia in late June, New York by early August, and Boston in late August. Municipal, state, and federal medical officials struggled to respond. Influenza patients could succumb to the disease in as little as twelve hours; suffering from intense secondary pneumonia, turning the patient blue as they suffocated from lung hemorrhage. Even more alarming, 1918 influenza struck the young and healthy the hardest. Mortality among patients ages 15-34 years soared to rates twenty times higher than previous influenza epidemics.
One hundred years ago this month, influenza arrived in New Orleans.