MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Isn't 1918 Flu Yet

MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Isn't 1918 Flu Yet
1918 Influenza Cartoon

So lately in the news we have been hearing about MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. I find it interesting that three cases reported so far in the United States could be making this much news! You can check current MERS stats at the CDC website here.  In a nutshell, the MERS hoopla centers around a severe respiratory virus that appears to have started in the Middle East and the U.S. had its first confirmed case in Indiana reported on May 2nd and Florida on May 11th.  It appears that the third case was recently reported of an Illinois resident who had contact with the Indiana subject and showed signs that his body had developed antibodies to the MERS but did not show symptoms.

I think that a particular statistic seemed to really strike fear into the hearts of the general public and that was the fact MERS killed 30% of those who contract it.  Now taken at face value that stat is pretty terrifying because who would want to be the three out of 10 people who don’t make it!  In fact that state is pretty close to the death rate from smallpox.

I say let’s party like it aint 1918!  If you think 3 possible cases in a month is scary just take a trip back to the late fall of 1918.

Warning notice displayed throughout the city of Chicago during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Warning notice displayed throughout the city of Chicago during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Arguably the worst pandemic to strike the world happened in more or less two major waves of influenza in the spring and late fall of 1918.  It infected roughly one third of the U.S. Population or approximately 500 million people resulting in the death of at least 50 million people or as high as 100 million people.

The 1918 “flu” was of the avian variety and just recently has been identified genetically as the mother of all Influenza A type infections since that time.   There were two distinct characteristics of the 1918 Flu that made it so horrifying.   The first of those is the fact that the fatality rate of the 1918 strain was 20 times the fatality rate of the average influenza infection which resulted in about a 3%  fatality rate.  The second characteristic about the 1918 flu is that it primarily killed those considered most healthy.  The greatest number of deaths from this flu occurred in the 25 to 40 age range with almost no deaths occurring in persons over 65 years of age.  It was almost as if the flu was using a person’s immune system against them.

In Chicago, although it fared somewhat better than most large cities, roughly 8,500 deaths occurred as the result of the flu and at its high point over 1,000 new cases were reported each day.   The State of Illinois and the City of Chicago instituted bans on public gatherings and on many businesses such as movie theaters, limited the number of persons who could attend funerals and at one point it became an arrestable offense to cough or sneeze in public without using a handkerchief.

The flu, when it did kill, often killed quickly.  It was not uncommon for someone to feel well in the morning and be dead by nightfall.  Family members were many times buried side by side and many times on the same day!  The disease ravaged the respiratory system so severely that one of the common autopsy findings was a pink colored foam that was found in the lungs of victims due to bleeding of the lung tissue.  It was such a miserable sickness that I have found multiple accounts (without really looking that hard) of individuals who killed themselves rather than die from the effects of the flu.  One woman drowned herself in Lake Michigan and a 40 year old man cut his own throat with his shaving razor.

So let’s be thankful that there have been only 3 cases of MERS reported in the U.S. so far and that at first glance doesn’t seem to spread as easily as an influenza virus.  We might also consider saying a prayer that it stays that way.
Find Chicago History The Stranger Side on FACEBOOK

If you love Chicago History please consider subscribing to my posts. You will receive an email that alerts you when a new article is published. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment