It’s hard to imagine now as so many people’s lives have been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but some day children will sit on their grandparents laps and listen to stories about the time when people were quarantined.
Some stories will be tragic. Others will be stories of creativity and perseverance. Chances are each story will be one that nobody hopes to relive.
Sam Ridgway was one of those children who heard tales of quarantine and loss of life from his grandfather, Harry Ridgway. Harry once composed the “Sidewalks of Hydetown” column for The Herald.
Harry told Sam stories of the influenza outbreak of the late teens during the last century. “I can remember being 12 or 13 years old when Harry told me about the outbreak,” Sam said. “Quarantines were posted on people’s homes.”
“As a young lad listening to Gramps, I was awestruck by what he said,” Sam said. “Sam, just start counting to 20,” Sam said his grandfather told him. Harry told his young grandson that once he got to 20, he should consider that person dead.
“Wow,” Sam said. “20 wasn’t a number that a 13-year-old couldn’t understand.” Harry explained to Sam that “was just the way it was.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.
Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-19. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918.
It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.
Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.
While the 1918 H1N1 virus has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that made it so devastating are not well understood. With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings.
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