Contributed by Ida Milne
The influenza A H1N1 [definitely not Mexican, resolutely not pig, perhaps novel] flu has added interesting dimensions to my research subject, the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic in Ireland. For a start, people suddenly seem interested, rather than considering it a rather fusty topic. Then, there is the element of reliving history; the panic which struck Mexico City when the authorities admitted after several months of increased levels of influenza-like illness that they had a problem must have been similar to that experienced along the east coast of Ireland in October 1918 when the virus was killing hundreds of people each week.
In Mexico City, people jammed Benito Juarez International Airport to get a flight out of the country for themselves and their children. In the Ireland of 1918, there was nowhere to run to, as the flu had already spread through the proximities of mainland Europe, and was also raging through Britain. City families did try to send their children to relatives in the country, in the hope that the less populated areas would provide some kind of refuge.
‘Spanish’ flu [when the flu emerged in Mexico last month my pharmacist, Eduardo, asked indignantly why the Hispanics are being blamed again] killed in excess of 40 million people. The moniker came because the flu was first reported in the early summer of 1918 by newspapers in Spain, unaffected by wartime censorship. By then, the US, French, British and German armies were already troubled by it.
As different groups apply pressure on health authorities to prevent the current influenza A H1N1 being given a tag that could wipe out an industry – so far Mexican tourism and the global pig industry are involved – one wonders whether pressure groups were deliberately playing the blame game in 1918-1919. “Spanish” flu stuck, but at times it was called the Naples soldier, the French flu, the German flu…in spite of twenty first century US scientists being very eager to claim its origin in the States, it has surprisingly never been called the American flu.
In Ireland, there are 20,000 deaths directly attributed to the influenza, also an A H1N1 variant. Another 3,000 people died from pneumonia following influenza. These figures would suggest in excess of 800,000 cases here, given a death rate of 2.5 per cent. During one week at the end of October, hundreds were reported ill in Naas, Dundalk, New Ross, Wexford, Gorey, Kilkenny, Bray, and thousands in Dublin.
These deaths occurred in three distinct waves. After the first (and mildest) wave in the early summer, people questioned what all the panic had been about. Are we are experiencing a similar denial this time?
Ida Milne is a third year PhD student at Trinity College, Dublin undertaking research on the Spanish flu in Ireland. Ida is the first outside contributor to Pue’s Occurrences.
Tuesday 2 June RTE 1 began its six-week documentary series called ‘Outbreak’ with a look at the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Flu. Next week is the TB epidemic of the 1950s.