100 years later, influenza remains deadly

Thankfully, vaccines and other modern measures help


Be glad you’re reading about the flu in 2018 and not in 1918.

One hundred years ago, the news was grim as the 1918 influenza pandemic spread across the globe, claiming more lives than World War I, which ended that November.

An estimated 500 million people — a third of the world’s population at the time — became infected with the virus, and at least 50 million died worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the United States, an estimated 675,000 people died from the 1918 influenza pandemic. The outbreak reached Wyoming, and one of the notable locals to die in the pandemic was Irma Garlow, the 34-year-old daughter of Buffalo Bill Cody. Irma and her husband, Fred, died within a few days of each other.

In 1918, life expectancy rates for Americans fell to just 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women. At a time of widespread fear and grief, few options existed for treatment or prevention of the flu.

“There were no vaccines to protect against flu virus infection, no antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia,” the CDC said on its website.

Can we just pause for a moment to marvel at modern medicine? One hundred years ago, scientists had not yet discovered viruses, let alone developed tests, treatments or vaccinations for influenza.

We’ve come such a long way. Today, the flu vaccine is in plentiful supply in America, with millions of doses produced each year. Yet even though flu shots are readily available and inexpensive, many don’t get one.

If you haven’t yet received a flu shot, we believe it’s worth getting the vaccine — and there’s still time to do so before the flu season peaks.

While a lot has changed since 1918, the flu still kills people every year. There were 27 flu-related deaths in Wyoming in 2017-18, making it a highly severe season, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

Sadly, Montana experienced its first flu death of this season on Saturday as a 6-year-old kindergartner in Missoula, Montana, died of influenza and pneumonia.

“Influenza may be familiar, but should never be overlooked or accepted as a minor problem,” said Dr. Alexia Harrist, Wyoming state epidemiologist, in a news release this fall. “We see serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths due to flu every season.”

She called flu shots “safe and the most important action people can take to help prevent getting ill with influenza and passing it on to others.”

The flu vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, some pharmacies and Park County Public Health. And while you’re at it, inquire about other vaccinations, such as those for shingles and whooping cough.

Of course, the flu shot isn’t perfect — the CDC says its effectiveness varies, generally reducing your risk by 40 to 60 percent. That’s why it’s also important to practice common-sense measures to slow the spread of the flu and other illnesses, such as covering your mouth/nose when you cough or sneeze, and washing your hands frequently.

If you do get sick, be courteous and stay home from work or school, and don’t run errands or attend public events.

The holidays are a time for sharing, but not when it comes to the flu.