I just finished reading The Great Influenza. By “finished,” I mean quit on page 250. It is dry, dry, dry and it is a hard topic to read 400 pages about. There is only so much death and pestilence a girl can take. Plus, I’m not the biggest fan of nonfiction. I have to push myself through most of these books and am thrilled to be satisfactorily done with this one and on to something new.

Did you know the flu of 1918, commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, killed 50 million people in 18 months? As the author notes, that is more than HIV/AIDS has killed in 20-plus years. And not just the young and the weak, as the flu is prone to knock off. This is where it gets scary. The bulk of those who died were in their 20s and 30s and otherwise very healthy. Some died within a day. Dropped dead, black from cyanosis and had holes in their lungs. These deaths are considered “double deaths” in epidemiology because they happen during reproductive years.

This book scared me a lot. I have friends (okay, one friend in particular) who’s been a bit freaked about global flu and I keep trying to calm her woes. Not now. Freak all you want. It is intensely frightening to think what will happen the next time the flu virus mutates and becomes this infectious. Millions will die within weeks. (Think about how slow transportation was in 1918 in comparison to global travel today.) My best suggestion is to stay home. If any sort of major infectious airborne disease strikes your hometown, stay home. Eat what you have, limit your contact with outsiders, telecommute. Do what you have to do to keep pathogens outside of your home and stay put. If you need to go out, it’s in your best interest to try and cover your mouth with something similar to this kn95 mask. By using a mask like that, it should prevent the virus from spreading to more and more people. If everyone took precautions like that, the virus should impact far fewer people.

A passage that fueled this new paranoia:
“Families closed-off rooms where a body lay, but a closed-door could not close out the knowledge and the horror of what lay behind the door. In much of the city, (Philadelphia) a city shorter of housing than New York, people had no room that could be closed off. Corpses were wrapped in sheets, pushed into corners, left there sometimes for days, the horror of it sinking in deeper each hour, people too sick to cook for themselves, to sick to clean themselves, to sick to move the corpse off the bed, lying alive on the same bed with the corpse. The dead lay there for days, while those living lived with them, were horrified by them, and, perhaps most horribly, became accustomed to them.”

Ewww. Good Lord this was an awful time to be alive. On the bright side, it gives my line of work some major props:

“Public health was and is where the largest number of lives are saved, usually by understanding the epidemiology of a disease — its patterns, where and how it emerges and spreads — and attacking it at its weak points. This usually means prevention. Science had first contained smallpox, then cholera, then typhoid, then plague, then yellow fever all through large-scale public health measures, everything from filtering water to testing and killing rats to vaccination. Public health measures lack the drama of pulling someone back from the edge of death, but they save lives by the millions.”

My review? 3 out of 5 informative bananas. 5 out of 5 scare me bananas. 1 out of 5 entertain me bananas.