War & Influenza

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Larry Jacobson, Undergraduate in Microbiology

World War I was a global war (mostly centered in Europe) that began on 28 June 1914 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 11 November 1918, which is called Armistice Day. By the time the war ended, over 66 million soldiers and sailors from 14 different countries became involved in the conflict. Approximately 16 million lost their lives.

From 1914 to 1917, the fighting stalemated into a war of attrition with troops facing each other in trenches that extended for 550 miles. Then on 6 April 1917, after the sinking of seven U.S. merchant ships, the U.S. Congress declared War on the Axis powers, and the U.S. entered the war. With war came the Selective Service Act, and the small U.S. Army quickly swelled to 2.8 million soldiers. By July of 1918, the Army was sending 10,000 fresh fighting forces a day to France.

Historians tell us that it was the military might of the United States that broke the stalemate in France and ended the war in just five short months. I, however, believe that it was the Influenza Pandemic that started in the spring of 1918 that was the true victor. Sixteen million people died fighting in the trenches, but by the time the Influenza Pandemic had run its course, an estimated 20 to 50 million people had died. It’s hard to fight a war without people to man the guns.

The U.S. Military's entry into the war coincided with the spread of Influenza. The virus moved rapidly throughout the crowded military training camps, aboard the overloaded transport ships carrying troops to France, and in the terrible conditions of the trenches.

The Influenza virus traveled from Army camp to Army camp, and from September to November, up to 20% of the U.S. Military force was either sick with influenza or had died. Over 30,000 soldiers died before even reaching France. The troops that did make it, or arrived in other parts of Europe, then spread the virus throughout the rest of the world.

No one knows for sure where the virus originated. There are many theories: a British Military base in France, a U.S. Training Camp in Kansas, a biological weapon used by the Germans, or from somewhere in Spain or China. [This virus has also been referred to as the Spanish flu, most likely because more people died in Spain in November 1918 than anywhere else].

I myself believe that the pandemic started in the spring of 1918 with cases of “three-day-fever” that affected 20 to 40 year olds, which is weird for a virus that normally affects the old and young. There were only a few deaths at that time, and the outbreak seemed to end when most victims recovered in just a few days.

The first cases of this spring flu were reported at Camp Funston, an Army Training Camp tucked inside Fort Riley, Kansas. On the morning of March 11, the Company cook reported to sick call with what was described as a bad cold. By lunch, 100 soldiers were sick, and by the end of the day, over 500 were ill. By April and May, this illness had spread to other Army Posts around the country.

In March, 84,000 American troops were sent to Europe. The next month, 118,000 more were sent. These troops came to France well-armed, not only with guns and bombs, but also with the Influenza virus. The disease was now on both continents.

When hostilities ended in November 1918, the troops, along with the virus, returned to the U.S. at the Port of Boston and spread across the country. This pandemic was the worst outbreak in history. In the written history of World War I, the Influenza Pandemic has been lost to the stories of battles and the political implications of the war. More studies need to be undertaken to narrow down the starting point, how the virus spread, and what precautions were taken to ensure if this happens again we will be ready for it. After all, history has a way of repeating itself.

The 1918 “Spanish Flu” killed between 20 million and 50 million people (some say up to 100 million) worldwide; in 1957-1958, the H2N2 “Asian Flu” killed 2 million; in 1968-1969, “Hong Kong Flu” (H3N2) killed 1 million worldwide; in 1977, it was H5N1, the “Bird Flu,” that killed about 2000 people; and in 2009, H1N1, or “Swine Flu,” killed 18,000. None of these outbreaks match the virulence of the 1918 strain, but as we all know, Influenza loves to mutate, and if were are not prepared, we could be in trouble.

We have come a long way in medical research and could possibly develop a vaccine rather quickly. But, if a virus as virulent or more so than that of the 1918 strain that targeted young adults killed as quickly, say within hours or days of infection, and got into an unprotected society, then the results would be devastating. If as in 1918, 2.5 people out of the 1/5 of the population infected died, then given a population of 7 billion, a pandemic today would affect about 1.4 million people and cause 560 million deaths worldwide. Can you say economic and social collapse?

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

Trench Image: Ernest Brooks.

Flu virus Image: CDC.