A flu season for the record books

Baltimore Glimpses

March 07, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

A LOT of us have gotten the flu this year. However, most of us suffered through it with nothing more than temporary pains, fevers and coughs.

It was nothing like the flu and pneumonia that swept the country in 1918. Baltimore was second only to Philadelphia in the number deaths per thousand residents caused by the epidemic.

In 1918, 7 out of every 1,000 Baltimoreans who got the flu or pneumonia died -- for a total of 3,742 fatalities; more than 80,000 people died nationally. Baltimore's undertakers were overwhelmed by bodies; many burials had to be delayed for an unacceptably long time.

John C. Blake, then Baltimore's Commissioner of Health, issued a warning: "It is of the greatest importance that people protect their throats and noses. I urge persons who are not well to stay at home and get medical attention."

"Medical attention" then was partly what it is today: a mystic mix of home remedies (hot tea and chicken soup) and over-the-counter patent medicines (cough syrups and aspirin). Some people wore cubes of camphor around their necks; they thought inhaling the vapors would kill the flu bug. Pharmacies were overrun with people looking for cures.

The harried health commissioner had the city put plain-clothes policemen on the streetcars to enforce no-smoking and no-spitting laws -- measures he thought were necessary to curb the spread of the flu bug. The commissioner also ordered that streetcar tokens be bathed daily in an antiseptic.

The spread of the epidemic resulted in many Baltimore institutions shutting down, sometimes erratically and chaotically.

The public schools were closed for days at a time. So were movie houses, concert halls, nightclubs, theaters, churches and even the old Oriole Park. (Orioles' owner Jack Dunn pleaded with Commissioner Blake to let the Birds play. He was turned down.) Hundreds of homeless people were treated at the city's emergency hospital set up at 506 W. Lexington St.

Why was this earlier epidemic so much more life threatening than this year's flu? Dr. Solomon Snyder, professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, explains: "To begin with we know from studies that the 1918 flu was a much more virulent strain of the virus. And it hit at a time when there were no antibiotics to deal with superimposed bacterial infections, which is what most people who get the flu typically die from.

"The flu today is a less virulent strain, coming at a time when we have antibiotics. But the truth is we have absolutely no scientific knowledge to tell us why one strain of flu is so much more dangerous than another.

"Flu epidemics remain mysterious."

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