As you lie under the covers with a monstrous headache and body aches, alternating between being freezing cold and burning hot, the last thing you want to hear is that you should have gotten a flu vaccine. But you should have gotten a flu vaccine. It’s also not too late, once you’re able to walk to the car, to get one.
More people with the flu are ending up in hospitals, and there already have been many more flu outbreaks this winter than all of last season. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control say that a flu vaccine is the best way to protect against influenza. Everyone at least 6 months old should get one annually, even if you were vaccinated the previous year. Go to flu.gov to find a flu vaccine location close to where you live.
When you’ve passed through the fever, take a moment to understand the seriousness of the virus. It was a particularly brutal force before the development of flu vaccines. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 killed far more people than World War I. Here’s what we learned while recovering from the virus ourselves:
• Researchers during the 1920s estimated 21.5 million people worldwide perished during the influenza pandemic, but more recent estimates put the numbers at anywhere from 30 million to 50 million. Approximately 675,000 Americans were among the dead, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In three weeks the virus killed more people than AIDS did in 24 years.
• Some Mainers traveled to Camp Devens, Mass., a military base housing about 45,000 men, to care for the sick there — as by mid-September 1918 nearly 9,000 had fallen ill. The brave nurses, some of whom later died, included 10 from Central Maine General Hospital in Lewiston and six from Milo.
• At the time, tracking the flu in Maine was difficult because the state lacked a strong public health system and had about 768,000 people living mostly in rural areas. State officials did send a report to the Public Health Service in October 1918, though, writing that “the disease is epidemic at Eastport and Portland.”
• Dr. L.D. Bristol, then Maine’s commissioner of health, wrote to Surgeon General Rupert Blue in December 1918 to request “nurses for influenza work” in Portland. There were so many flu patients at Portland’s hospitals that Bristol was worried that Canadian soldiers, returning from Europe via Portland, would overwhelm the city’s hospitals even more. The Public Health Service was unable to provide the nurses and suggested that Maine ask the Red Cross for assistance.
• During the height of the pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson was encouraged to stop deploying troops to Europe — as the ocean crossings were spreading the virus. But Wilson instead decided to follow the advice of his chief of staff, who argued that the U.S. needed to deploy more troops to help bring a speedy end to the war. Months later, in April 1919, Wilson became seriously ill and was diagnosed with influenza. Whether the diagnosis was correct or not, Wilson’s ailment prevented him from participating in key Paris Peace Conference negotiations. The resulting agreements, ending World War I, were significantly different from what Wilson had wanted.
There were no flu vaccines back then to help prevent the virus and its spread, so please take advantage of modern medicine, and, of course, make sure to wash your hands often. Getting the flu isn’t fun for anyone and can be dangerous. For those of you who are sick, may you recover quickly. For everyone, please get your flu shot if you haven’t already.