Joe Volz: Flu epidemic in 1918 offers a deadly cautionary tale -- Gazette.Net


There are a number of foolish Frederick County residents who don’t think they need a flu vaccination.

They offer a plethora of excuses: It doesn’t do any good, they say. They may actually get the flu from the vaccine. It is too late to find the vaccine.

None of those “explanations” make much sense to me. Our family takes the flu personally.

Back in the 1918 epidemic, which killed thousands worldwide, our family was directly affected. My grandfather and aunt died, and just about every relative was affected.

The big difference then was that we could not do much to stop it. Today, we can.

I was looking through my mother’s graphic memoir she wrote years later and it is a telling portrait. She spoke of her mother and father being sick at the same time.

And she watched the caskets pile up 6 feet high in front of the funeral home across the street. There was not enough room to take all of the bodies inside at the same time.

Funerals were held every 20 minutes at the church nearby, and the bells kept tolling.

My mother was a girl of 9 and thought that the bells were celebrating the end of World War I. Not quite. They were tolling the end of life, not of war.

Everyone in her family was sick but none died. My family lived in Philadelphia, Pa., where schools were closed for months in the hope that preventing crowds of people would slow the disease.

But across town in Bridesburg, both my grandfather and aunt died. It was the saddest of times.

The difference between today’s epidemic and the epidemic of 1918 is that we had no means to combat the flu then.

So when I hear friends and relatives offering explanations about why they are not getting a vaccination, I want to tell them our story, which was such a tragedy in 1918.

The remedies then were hopeless. Washing down the street was one or putting compresses on the patient’s chest.

So why are people so resistant to seeking help?

Many have waited until the flu vaccine is scarce, yet they still can ask the Frederick County Health Department for help in finding the vaccine.

No, the vaccine does not work all the time, but health officials say even if patients get a case of the flu, it will be milder. And the vaccine does not cause people to get the flu.

So, if you have a friend who is resisting seeking help, tell him my family’s story.

Joe Volz, a former Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written for newspapers in New York and Washington. You can reach him at