A ferocious flu outbreak that circumnavigated the globe in 1918 has eerie parallels to the epidemic sweeping across the United States now, but medical and history experts said despite each arriving 18 years into new centuries, the two influenzas differ significantly.
During a news briefing Monday at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage where vast collections of memorabilia from both 20th century world wars are displayed, experts rekindled memories of the 1918 pandemic, the worst flu outbreak in history.
“This was a global crisis, bigger than the Black Death,” said Libby O’Connell, who chairs the New York World War I Centennial and is chief historian emeritus at the History Channel. “It was closely intertwined with the environment of WWI, which included trench warfare.”
The “Black Death” was a rat-borne plague that moved in waves across Eurasia from 1347 to 1351. It was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, that killed an estimated 75 million to 200 million people. By contrast, the 1918 flu pandemic was spawned by a virus not identified until technology and a new era of scientific questioning emerged in the 1930s.
Scientists estimate the pandemic a century ago claimed the lives of 600,000 people in the United States and about 50 million worldwide. It is believed to have been a bird flu strain.
“There weren’t enough gravediggers,” O’Connell said.
Bodies piled up faster than they could be buried. Mass graves were sometimes a solution.
The fierce respiratory illness swept through Camp Upton, a military installation in Brookhaven Town, O’Connell said. The camp was packed with soldiers and served as a veritable influenza incubator.
Elsewhere on Long Island, schools were converted into makeshift hospitals. Most people’s lives were touched by the illness. In New York City, spitting on the street could earn jail time. Some of the sick were swept away to dismal institutions erected on “quarantine islands,” the small chain of islets in the East River, which include North Brother Island, where “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, a cook, resided — quarantined — for much of her life. She was a carrier of typhoid bacteria and either sickened or caused the deaths of some of her employers, including at a summer home in Oyster Bay.
Neither flu vaccines nor antiviral medications existed, making isolation a principal method of prevention. The flu was a notorious killer of people between 18 and 40, federal studies show.
In recent weeks, Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has emphasized that the current outbreak is not a pandemic strain, despite recent high numbers of flu-related deaths, estimated at 4,000 people a week.
The 1918 flu was caused by “antigenic shift,” the process by which two or more flu viral strains combine to create a new subtype that has never before infected human populations. The result: a high infection rate and extraordinarily high mortality.
Seasonal flu is subject to year-round “antigenic drift,” which means the accumulation of mutations in proteins that allow the virus to attach to cells in the lungs. The constant change — the drift — is the reason the flu vaccine must differ from season to season.
“We are still characterizing this year’s virus,” Schuchat said during a recent news briefing, emphasizing that the strain causing most illnesses is not the result of antigenic shift.
Monday’s briefing included people dressed as WWI-era soldiers. One of them was Joseph Nappi, of Lake Ronkonkoma, who said his maternal great-grandmother, Camella DeRosa, a young woman in 1918, was stricken by the flu.
He held a reproduced family photo from 1926, showing a fully recovered DeRosa, surrounded by her children and her 6-month-old daughter, Matilda, on her lap. Matilda is Nappi’s maternal grandmother. “If she hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be here today,” Nappi said of his great-grandmother.