I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
So went a children’s skip rope ditty of 1918-1919, when Spanish Flu swept around the world and knocked off more people than the so-called Great War. Isn’t that so like children; to make light of something so awful they can’t comprehend it.
My free range imagination set off on this journey when confined to bed with something approaching flu, but probably not. After all, I had the vaccination in April. It started with a headache, a dry, irrepressible cough which brought on asthma, hot and cold spells and low-grade aches and pains.
The asthmatics among us would agree that we soon know if a virus inhabits our respiratory system. It’s never much fun. I’m also a bit of a hypochondriac, but you knew that. But if you see me out and about this weekend and I’m wearing a gauze face mask, stay well away (more about masks later).
The media is fond of a good plague story – they daren’t call it a plague, as that would be inaccurate and irresponsible, but the word epidemic often gets an airing. At the end of August 2015, Queensland Health had reported 18,500 cases of influenza including 10,000 cases of Brisbane B, which last emerged in 2008.
News.com.au reported that Queensland was “in the grip of its worst flu season on record”. They obviously forgot about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. The Spanish Flu or “La Grippa” came on really fast, invading the lungs, leading in many cases to pneumonia and death.
According to the Australian Disaster Management website, Australia fared relatively well, by enforcing strict quarantine regulations. Nonetheless, the Spanish flu killed 12,500 Australians, mostly younger people (ages 15 to 35) at a time when Australia’s population was just five million. (The picture above of nurses in Brisbane circa 1919 comes from the John Oxley Library).
World Health Organisation warnings about Influenza B last September came too late to include it in the free vaccination program. There have been 15,403 cases of influenza in Queensland this year, about 5,000 more than last year. Of those, more than 10,000 have been Influenza B, compared with just 1161 last year.
Another 3,000 cases in the last week of August took the number of people diagnosed with influenza to 18,500, making it the worst year since the swine flu in 2009. Still, that is only 0.39% of the State’s population of 4.7 million, so let’s not panic yet.
A musician friend had just left on a cruise ship for a holiday when she became ill. Soon after, she was diagnosed with Brisbane B and confined to her cabin for the duration. That’s just plain unlucky, but when you catch a genuine case of flu, you won’t resent too much being confined to quarters. Bed rest is really the only cure.
In between the genuine cases of influenza, which can be isolated as this or that strain, come a range of head colds and what we Aussies call lurgies, wogs or dog’s disease. Last time I came down with a rapid onset lurgie, a young Asian doctor who used to practice around here checked me out and pronounced: “It’s just a wirus – antibiotics are no use. Go home go to bed, take aspirin and drink lots of fluids.”
Good advice. It crossed my mind that I probably infected some of the people who were in the waiting room at the time, unless of course they already had a ‘wirus’.
There’s a fair gap between a bad head cold, a non-specific virus and influenza. Each can make you feel like putting a pillow over your face and pressing down hard.
I usually keep good health in this regard, but our passion for rugby league led us to Lang Park Stadium last Thursday night, along with 44,000 other people. Then we were stuck on a packed train back to Caboolture, breathing in all those dubious germs. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I’m thinking about it now.
Not that I want to blight your weekend, but here’s a sense of what it was like in 1918, living with ‘La Grippa’. Molly Billings of Stanford University Department of Human Virology writes:
“The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years. The influenza virus had a profound virulence, with a mortality rate at 2.5%, compared to the previous influenza epidemics, which were less than 0.1%. The death rate for 15 to 34-year-olds of influenza and pneumonia were 20 times higher in 1918 than in previous years (Taubenberger). People were struck with illness on the street and died rapid deaths.”
The curious thing about influenza is that it fades away – the strain mutates into something less crippling, less contagious and people get better. That certainly happened towards the end of 1919.
When Florence Nightingale (not) and I were in Hong Kong for a few days, it seemed every second person was wearing a gauze face mask. At first, I assumed this was to protect them from the appalling air quality, as pollution from coal fired power stations and motor cars drifts in from mainland China.
A friend who lives in HK says it is also to stop the spread of colds or flu generally, or in the case of the only well person in a household, it’s worn for personal protection.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says it is neutral on general mask-wearing “because there is hardly any evidence either way”.
Little research has been done to see if wearing masks helps protect people. The ECDC says that in some societies, e.g. in the Far East, masks are worn a lot in the influenza season, “but they still get plenty of influenza”.
As any general nurse can tell you, thorough hand washing is the best protection against spreading influenza or being infected. ECDC recommends using hand-washing to reduce influenza transmission and alcohol gels work against the influenza as well. So good general hygiene, hand-washing, and using and disposing of tissues is important.
Many people around here swear by ‘hippy cures’ – echinacea, olive leaf extract, ginseng, nasal rinsing or throwing a towel over your head and inhaling pine/menthol vapour. No better or worse than over the counter medications. A rum toddy with lemon and honey and two aspirin on the side is another option. Make it a double.
Meanwhile, I’m choosing to stay in bed and drink lots of fluids, as advised. For distraction I’m reading the New Internationalist’s coverage of Syria and its myriad woes. The irony does not escape me that I will soon get better and return to my cushy life.