Epidemics and How History Can Potentially Save Lives

Epidemics in Kentucky


Yellow Fever

“Spanish” Influenza


Smallpox and Pest Houses

1918 “Spanish” Influenza pandemic
Image from University of Kentucky Training of the Fighting Mechanic records, University of Kentucky Special Collections.

Kentucky, and the world at large, is no stranger to epidemics. Whether it is cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis, or influenza, Kentucky has seen nearly everything. Perhaps the most well-known, or infamous, epidemic in Kentucky was “Spanish” influenza in 1918. At the early stages of the First World War, and with limited medical knowledge, the world was hit hard with influenza. Though the shadows of a devastating war hung like a heavy fog, the consensus amongst medical professionals was that they could conquer just about anything; it was the 20th century, after all! Medicine and science had made important discoveries; those tasked with finding, and implementing cures, were powered by a bravado that would prove dangerous in the end. That bravado made some physicians and scientists feel as if they were invincible–that medicine had taken a right turn for the better (and it most certainly had) and that it would only continue to get better. That bravado would continue to bleed over into patient care; that is, physicians were not panicked when influenza began trickling into the United States in early to mid-1918. It largely affected service members in various branches of the military. Those service members would eventually go on to get better, perhaps, and arguably, signaling that physicians really could take on anything.

Those service members were shipped off abroad to take on the first rungs of World War I. Some of them, asymptomatic, managed to transmit the virus; not long after, it spread like wildfire. As the days, weeks, and months crept by, it was clear that the influenza epidemic, eventually becoming a pandemic, was more serious than anyone had imagined. One could argue that a lot has changed since 1918. Though that is true, there are valuable and potentially life-saving lessons we can learn from history. Science and medicine have advanced by leaps and bounds compared to the fledgling land that colonists had settled on centuries before. Yet there are still aspects of medicine in which we understand little or lack the ability to take on at a large scale. The recent introduction of COVID-19, also called the coronavirus, into the United States and across the world has brought back memories and fears of the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic that struck a century ago.

What, then, can we learn from history? We know that communicable diseases, particularly those that are airborne, are exceedingly likely to disperse at unimaginable levels. Influenza and tuberculosis are two critical instances of evidence. Though science and medicine were high on bravado, they failed to realize the significance of influenza as a communicable disease and how effortlessly it could spread. During various epidemics, local and federal governments instituted various campaigns in an attempt to stave off the spread of communicable diseases. During the “Spanish” influenza epidemic, you likely would have found a sign like this:

Sanitary commissions from across the country implanted millions of these bricks into sidewalks to remind those walking that spitting could spread tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. These reminders were ingrained into the daily lives of Americans and would become their ‘new normal’.

Image from the Albuquerque Museum

Though the 21st century lacks a curative treatment, we know that to prevent the spread of a communicable, airborne illness, drastic measures are necessary. Science and medicine know more about virulent pathologies and can work much more rapidly in developing a vaccination. One could argue that the most difficult issue to cope with is changing behavior. We go about our daily lives and when an issue brings that to a halt, and likely for an extended period of time, there will be a curve we have to adjust to. History has taught us what can happen when we go unprepared during an epidemic, we can grow from that wealth of information to ensure that history is not repeated. Or, at the very least, we can prepare and institute preventative measures as early and efficiently as possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here are some critical things to remember and practice during the initial stages of COVID-19:

Find Local Information

Know the Signs & Symptoms

  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Call your health care provider’s office in advance of a visit
  • Limit movement in the community
  • Limit visitors

Take Steps for Those at Higher Risk

  • Know what additional measures those at higher risk and who are vulnerable should take.

Protect Yourself & Family

  • Implement steps to prevent illness (e.g., stay home when sick, handwashing, respiratory etiquette, clean frequently touched surfaces daily).

Create a Household Plan

Create a household plan of action in case of illness in the household or disruption of daily activities due to COVID-19 in the community.

  • Consider 2-week supply of prescription and over the counter medications, food and other essentials. Know how to get food delivered if possible.
  • Establish ways to communicate with others (e.g., family, friends, co-workers).
  • Establish plans to telework, what to do about childcare needs, how to adapt to cancellation of events.

Stay Informed About Emergency Plans

Know about emergency operations plans for schools/workplaces of household members.

Contributed by Shawn Logan | contact@kyhi.org

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