Memories of a Pandemic

By Julio César Hernández Perera on June 6, 2021

Abdala vaccine being given in Holguin, photo: Juan Pablo Carreras Vidal / ACN

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us meditate in many directions; it has made us realize, once again, the vulnerability of our species, and the need to work united and selflessly.

In order to seek experiences and stop replicating mistakes, the current pandemic has motivated the dusting off of similar episodes. Such reviews allow us to affirm that there is nothing new in noticing how a virus is capable of drastically changing the course of human life.

One of the stories revived in contemporary times has been that of the misnamed Spanish flu, a pandemic of which there were few references, which is why many were unaware of its existence and impact.

This flu took place a century ago, between 1918 and 1920. It occurred, moreover, at the end of a very turbulent time for humanity: the First World War.

The 1918 flu

Although it was called “the nightmare”, “the Kaiser”, “the worst plague in history”, “the mother of pandemics” and the 1918 flu pandemic, the Spanish flu has been the name most commonly given to it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s population fell ill with this flu.

Compared to modern times, this disease emerged when there were great limitations in science and medicine. For example, the causal agent was unknown; and treatments were very limited (antibiotics had not yet been discovered and the first vaccine against influenza would be developed 40 years later); there was also a lack of public health systems in the world.

Through multiple investigations, it has been determined that the virus that caused that pandemic was influenza A of the H1N1 subtype. Its origin has been saturated with speculation, although the latest scientific-historical evidence has focused on North America.

Everything indicates that the virus emerged in the first quarter of 1918, in the state of Kansas, United States. In that state it has been established that the first cases appeared almost at the same time in two geographically distant places: a military camp in Fort Riley, and the small county of Haskell.

Several pieces of evidence indicate that at some point in the summer of that year the virus underwent a mutation that made it a more infectious and lethal agent. Thus, in late August 1918, the flu was reported in Brest, a French port through which U.S. troops entered during the First World War.

In Spain, which was a neutral nation in the conflict, the pandemic received greater attention from its national media. This fact had a great influence on the disease receiving the name of Spanish flu.

The return of the belligerent troops to their countries of origin contributed to the spread of the flu worldwide. The virus reached remote territories such as Oceania and Alaska. In the latter northern scenario, suffice it to say that the Inuit people of Fairbanks practically disappeared.

Medical feats in Cuba

The Spanish flu also reached our country. It has been recorded that in October 1918 the virus “disembarked” in the port of Havana on board the ship Alfonso XIII. On that ship, 44 people affected by the virus were traveling; 26 of them had died during the voyage.

In October, 125 people died of the disease in the capital. Almost simultaneously, cases of the disease were reported in Camagüey, which became the area of the country most affected by the pandemic, to the point of registering the highest number of deaths there.

And although Havana had all the conditions to be the hardest hit, due to its population density and mobility of its inhabitants, something influenced the fact that this did not happen. The reason lay in the profound preventive vision of the School of Cuban Hygienists at the time, who set guidelines and measures for the country.

This group of doctors was led by Juan Guiteras Gener and was under the influence, brilliance and professional competence of the scientist Carlos J. Finlay Barrés. In October 1918, they established different regulations for the prophylaxis of influenza, in which an incredible validity can be appreciated.

It is surprising how among these measures dictated a century ago, there are actions so familiar to contemporary times as the isolation of the sick in their homes, the need to call the doctor quickly when the first symptoms appear, as well as maintaining the cleanliness and hygiene of homes.

Likewise, the use of antiseptic solutions, prohibiting visits to the homes of patients affected by influenza and the exit of the inhabitants of homes with sick people, not frequenting closed places or places with large crowds of people, and abolishing the practice of shaking hands as a form of courtesy, or kissing people on the face.

The current efforts made by Cuban doctors make us proud and explain how, at that time, with much less resources and knowledge, it was possible to control in the Greater Antilles a disease that caused enormous havoc worldwide.

Source: Cubadebate, translation Resumen Latinoamericano