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BC’s Tales of the Pacific: Spanish Flu

THIS year marks one hundred years since we experienced the greatest medical disaster in human history.  The Spanish Flu of 1918 was a global catastrophe without equal.

About one third of the Earth’s population was infected with the strain of influenza, and roughly ten percent of those who got it died.  It is estimated that around 50 million people were killed by the Spanish Flu, making it the deadliest disease outbreak of all time.  Some experts believe even that number is low, because many regions around the world did not accurately report their cases.  It is possible that the death toll was closer to 100 million, making it even more deadly than any war ever fought.images/photos/misc/fluSpanish01.jpg

Flu is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and is highly contagious.  When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks, tiny water droplets containing the virus are spread into the air and can be breathed in by anyone nearby.  If a person touches something with the virus on it, such as money held by an infected person, and then touches their face they can become infected.

So flu is highly contagious, nothing new there.  But what made the Spanish Flu different from most outbreaks is that, although typically flu is most dangerous for the very young or very old and those with existing health problems, the Spanish Flu acted in the opposite way.  People from all age groups, ethnicities and varying health status were affected, but the death rates were highest among the middle aged and healthy, the very people who should have been least affected.  Medical experts are still not sure why this was so.

Once word spread that a new, deadlier form of flu was moving around the world, drastic measures were taken.  Businesses closed so their employees could stay home.  Public transportation shut down, limiting the opportunities for people to infect one another.  Ships known to carry passengers with the Spanish Flu, or known to have come from a place where the flu raged, were denied entry to port.

Few locations were spared.  Nearly every country in the world, even the extremely remote or sparsely populated, experienced cases of the Spanish Flu.  Small towns in Alaska with no road access had cases.  Villages high in the Andes mountains in South America had them too.  What about in the Pacific?

Many islands were hit hard.  Fiji lost roughly five percent of its population, Tonga close to eight percent.  Guam lost five percent of its residents, while Tahiti suffered ten percent killed.  Since the flu killed an average of ten percent of those infected, we can assume that nearly the entire population of Tahiti contracted the flu.  Western Samoa suffered twenty percent of its population killed, which staggers the mind.  However, American Samoa was completely spared, with not one case of death due to the Spanish Flu.

The culprit in many of these islands was a single ship, the SS Talune.  The vessel carried many infected people, including passengers and crew.  Everywhere it stopped along its usual route among the islands, death followed swiftly.  Samoa, Guam, Tonga, Fiji and Nauru were all infected by people on the Talune, with death rates as high as twenty five percent on some islands.

We never beat the Spanish Flu.  It killed everyone it was going to kill and simply went away.  That means it is still among us, waiting for conditions to favor another outbreak.  Could another disease pandemic like the Spanish Flu happen again?  Absolutely.  Health experts say it is not a question of whether it will happen, only a question of when.  Advances in transportation have connected the world much more than a century ago.  In our time, we have created the perfect conditions for an outbreak that would make the Spanish Flu look like, well, just another case of the flu.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.