I have the penciled draft of a never-published short story written by my mother about the day in 1918 that her older sister, Evelyn, died from the Spanish flu.
Reading it always breaks my heart, as she describes in detail, from a child’s point of view, how the parlor furniture was rearranged to make room for the coffin.
Equally terrifying, on a larger scale, is an account by historian Michael Sherman, published online by the Vermont Historical Society, about the way the 1918 epidemic swept through the state, claiming, in only a few months, nearly eighteen thousand deaths, from more than forty three thousand cases.
“Newspapers carried advertisements for patent medicines, none of which was truly effective in preventing or curing the flu,” Sherman writes. “Makeshift clinics were assembled in churches, libraries, and other buildings... In Burlington, the mayor took the unusual and controversial step of opening a dispensary where flu victims with signed notes from their doctors could acquire carefully measured quantities of alcoholic beverages, thought to be a preventative...”
Today, instead of patent medicines and booze, we have a vaccine. Unfortunately, it’s only about 30 percent effective on the worst strain this year, but doctors are still urging us to get the shot, so I did.
I wash my hands so much my skin is flaky; I try to keep my distance from anyone with possible symptoms; and as the tally of flu cases rises, I can’t help but imagine my beautiful, young Aunt Evelyn struggling for her last breath.
A tough image, I know, but what’s even tougher is knowing that the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health, whose scientists say they are close to finding a better vaccine, are facing drastic cuts in the current administration’s budget blueprint.
The CDC reports as many as fifty six thousand influenza-related deaths in the U.S. in a bad year, but the disease takes a much greater toll in poorer nations. And while that number pales in comparison to the estimated 50 million people – or one fifth of the world’s population - who succumbed to the flu in the 1918 epidemic, it’s a reminder that humans are vulnerable.
Vulnerability is one of seven words the Trump administration recently told the CDC not to use.
Seems to me that complacency about that vulnerability is a prescription for the next global health disaster.