Swine flu overrides Obama’s 100th Day

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today is the much anticipated 100th day of the Obama administration. I had expected every news source on the planet to give its take on its accomplishments or, in the case of Fox News, its failures. However, that news has taken a backseat to a possible matter of life and death: the worldwide pandemic of the swine flu.

That word, pandemic, is a relatively new word to me, although it is not a new word. Up until a few years ago, we would have spoken of the spread of an infectious disease as an epidemic. It may not be of interest to you, but words are important to me and I sought the difference between the words epidemic and pandemic.

They both are associated with the spread of contagious diseases. The difference in the words has to do with magnitude. A pandemic, very simply, involves a much larger geographic area than an epidemic. Once an infectious disease jumps the borders of countries and continents, it evolves from epidemic to pandemic.

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Our president has told us that this illness is a “matter of concern, but not a matter for alarm.” I think that is the right response to calm the fears of the country and prevent panic. I have never lived through a devastating disease, but our world and country has.

In the Bible, famine and plague are usually mentioned together. There is an instance of a devastating plague among God’s people in King David’s time. In an account in 2 Samuel’s 24th chapter, the Lord punishes David for counting his fighting men and 70,000 Israelites from Dan to Beersheba died in a three day period.

During my high school years, I remember reading about the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, that ravaged Europe and the world during the Middle Ages. Statistics were not kept to accurately reflect the loss of lives, but there is no doubt as to the severity of the plague.

It is believed to have begun in rodents in Central Asia and was carried by fleas to the rodents of the cities of Europe. Once in the concentrated populations of those cities the virus jumped from rodents to humans. The result is estimated that one-third of the world’s population (possibly 150 million people) may have died. Can you imagine the magnitude of such population loss?

There is another pandemic that is much closer to our time and, yet, I knew very little about it. It happened last century. (It still sounds funny to me to refer to the 1900’s as “last” century). The statistics of this plague are not absolutely agreed upon, but the magnitude of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 is conclusive. I wonder why I didn’t study about it in American history.

First a little background. World War I was known as the Great War and began in 1914 and ended in the fall of 1918. Worldwide, sixteen million soldiers and civilians lost their lives as a result of the war. However, something began in the late winter of 1918 that would dwarf those losses.

Although it is impossible to absolutely identify the beginning of an influenza outbreak, many feel that the Spanish Flu, as it was later called, began at Fort Riley, Kansas on March 4, 1918 and Queens, New York on March 11, 1918.

At the time, researchers felt that this particular strain of influenza was jumping from birds to swine, then to humans. Both poultry and hogs were part of the food supply at Fort Riley. Today, however, it is thought that the jump of the virus did not include swine, but was straight from birds to humans. As soldiers were sent from the base camps to other parts of the world, the virus traveled with them undetected. The results were staggering.

As I mentioned, 16 million deaths have been attributed to WW I. The number of deaths associated with the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 has been estimated from 50 to 100 million. All of these deaths occurred in half the time of WW I. Since there were no statistics (and only estimates) from the aforementioned Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages, we can place this 1918-19 health holocaust at or near the top of the list for history’s most horrific happenings.

As far as the United States is concerned, they lost a little over 205,000 in the war. By comparison, during the two years of the influenza plague, they lost more than three times that amount, or up to 675,000. The population of the U.S. in 1918 was 92 million. If the same percentages were considered using today’s population figures, the U.S. would lose a staggering 2.1 million people!

Another interesting statistic regarding the United States and the pandemic of 1918 was that the results were so dramatic that during these years, the life expectancy of citizens dropped by 12 years. After the years 1918-19, mortality rates returned to a more normal figure.

This particular strain of influenza was introduced to the human population by birds. How and why still puzzles science, but an interesting nursery rhyme of 1918 shows the strength of the human spirit. While people were wearing paper masks all around the world, little children created a rhyme to accompany their games of jump rope. It went like this:

I had a little bird,

Its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

And in-flu-enza.

I’m sure we’ll get around to hearing more about our President’s first 100 days, but it’s amazing how easily matters of life and death can barge their way into our world.