The opioid epidemic has claimed too many lives in our area, but at least in those cases, we know what’s causing the deaths and how to prevent them. Can you imagine thousands of people falling ill and dying and not knowing what was causing it, how to treat it, or how to prevent it? That is exactly what happened in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1918.

The Great War, World War I, was winding down when in the spring of 1918, soldiers and citizens in Europe suddenly began to fall ill and die with what some called the “Spanish Flu.” The movement of troops around the globe enabled this “mystery illness” to sweep across Europe and Asia and eventually kill approximately 50 million people worldwide, becoming the worst influenza pandemic recorded. The flu is believed to have come to the U.S. during the summer of that year, and it eventually made its way to Pittsburgh.

No one is certain who the first victim in Pittsburgh was; some speculate it was a soldier who came home to the area on leave, but on October 5, the city’s first flu victim was officially recorded. Four more people died from the flu that week, and by the next, nearly two dozen more had succumbed.  The number of victims continued to grow, frightening and puzzling everyone.

Pittsburgh suffered terribly during the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the area had one of the highest, if not the highest, death rates from the flu of any city in the nation with 4,500 people dying and an astonishing rate of someone catching the flu every 70 seconds and someone dying from it every 10 minutes. Some speculate that the area was hardest hit at that time because Pittsburgh was over-crowded with new immigrants who were living in cramped quarters, making it a perfect breeding ground for the virus. It was so severe that some victims were buried in mass graves. In fact, in 2002, a marker was erected in Winfield Township, near Saxonburg, to commemorate the site of a mass grave that contains, what are believed to be at least 24 Eastern European miners, some of whom were buried only wrapped in sheets, as coffins were in short supply.

As more people were stricken, hospitals in the area were deluged with patients, funeral homes were filled, and undertakers ran out of coffins. As people continued to fall ill, Pennsylvania’s Deputy Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer ordered all public venues closed, and that included bars, theaters, and dance halls. Churches were allowed to hold services and schools remained open but were instructed to bar anyone who was coughing or sneezing. Unlike the other schools, our local colleges and universities such as Pitt, Duquesne, and Carnegie Tech all closed.

At that time, viruses had not yet been discovered, and prevention was a shot in the dark at best, running the gamut from eating red peppers to sprinkling sulfur into your shoes to taking quinine. Symptoms of the “Spanish flu” had a rapid onset, and in addition to the usual flu symptoms of chills, fever, muscle ache, and lethargy, this strain often turned the victim’s skin blue and filled their lungs with fluid causing death, in some cases, within hours of coming down with it. The flu was so widespread and so devastating that the average life expectancy in the U.S. fell by twelve years.

Many think of the flu as preying on the weak, very young and very old, but the flu epidemic of 1918 didn’t discriminate. According to Pittsburgh Health Department statistics from 1919, nearly 65 percent of the cases and 57 percent of the deaths came from people 15 to 40 years old. It is reported that more than 700 children in the area were left as orphans because of the flu taking their parents.

By the time November 1918 rolled around, the flu pandemic in our area began to wane. Today, we are fortunate in that we now know that the flu is caused by a virus, and we have flu shots that help to inhibit its spread and prevent a pandemic. Though they are not as well-known, we have had several other pandemics strike the U.S. since the Spanish flu outbreak. There were pandemics in 1957, 1968, and as recently as 2009, but none have been as devastating as the pandemic of 1918. That is due in large part to advancements in medicine, the push for people to be inoculated each fall with a flu shot, and from the work researchers conduct to prevent as devastating an outbreak as that which occurred in 1918.

By Janice Palko