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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Flu: Yeah, it bites, but be glad you weren’t around 95 years ago

Dean Shalhoup

Got the sniffles? Knocked down for a few days by the flu? Kicking yourself for forgetting that flu shot?

Not to make light of illness and all the discomfort and hassle that go with it – been there, done that, although this year … knock on wood. The current outbreak has, cruelly and sadly, claimed a number of people right here in New Hampshire. ...

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Got the sniffles? Knocked down for a few days by the flu? Kicking yourself for forgetting that flu shot?

Not to make light of illness and all the discomfort and hassle that go with it – been there, done that, although this year … knock on wood. The current outbreak has, cruelly and sadly, claimed a number of people right here in New Hampshire.

But I did stumble across an idea that may help you feel a tiny bit better: Hit up your favorite search engine for “influenza,” “epidemic” and “1918.” Read awhile; then see if you suddenly feel a tad more chipper, if not thankful, that this is 2013 and not 1918.

All the flu talk and cautions over past weeks got me wondering what it may have been like to fall ill seemingly out of the blue, and just hours later struggling to breathe, move or do much of anything. Or for the “lucky” ones, how did they cope with worrying 24/7 if they, or a loved one or two or three would be the next proverbial domino to fall?

For whatever reason, Nashua seems to have fared comparatively well through the current epidemic. In 1918, influenza was already a topic of concern in other parts of the nation when it drew its first mention in our predecessor-in-name Nashua Telegraph.

That first mention wasn’t even about Nashua: “Influenza Raging at Brockton,” was the headline on the small story at the bottom of Page 1. North Abington, Westland and Holbrook were suffering most, the story stated. It also referred to the “pandemic of 25 years ago,” adding that since few current doctors were practicing then, not many had experience handling the flu.

The Telegraph next wrote about the flu on Sept. 17, announcing the influenza-caused death of 24-year-old Perley O. Downey, a “well-known and popular young man” who was a carpenter and firefighter. By that time, a significant number of obituaries and death notices for young people who died after “sudden” or “very brief” illness had appeared in the paper. Though they didn’t specifically state “influenza” as the cause, it’s a good bet many of them were.

The death of 20-something Navy Paymaster Walter Merrill, of Hudson, was reported the next day. Then came the first stern, unsettling headline of the saga: “Influenza Raging in City,” though the story appeared on an inside page. Doctors and health officials began calling for the issuance of public warnings and instructions on how to combat the illness.

“Why wait until a number of people get pneumonia and then start?” the story, which reads more like an editorial, queried in urging officials take action. The epidemic “is as bad as that of 25 years ago and may prove worse … the state board of health should take action at once to stop the spread of this epidemic.”

Regionally, dance halls were closing, theaters were considering the same and appeals were going out to clergy to shorten services. Interestingly, the writer even floated a “big-brother” approach: having police officers “make a quick canvass of the city, and (have) the authority to (remove) people who have the (flu) from the streets and force them to stay at home.”

Flu cases, and worries, multiplied as September wore on. A story headlined “Ravages of Influenza Increasing” gave a big-picture glance, relating state public safety committee chairman John Jameson’s appeal that all meetings except the most essential be suspended across the state. Calling a possible statewide outbreak “most disastrous,” Jameson also urged the temporary closure of theaters, “moving picture houses,” schools and other places people gather in numbers. A few days later, Nashua heeded the advice, closing all schools for the last week of September.

One story stated New England’s first flu cases were reported in “one of the Naval stations in the vicinity of Boston,” when servicemen awoke one morning to find much sickness. “Although the epidemic had raged in Spain and in other European countries in late summer,” the reporter wrote, the Boston outbreak and its subsequent spread through New England “did not seem to excite interest from health officials either federal or state.”

The report is in line with overall reports on the epidemic, in which experts traced its outbreak to servicemen, many of whom had the flu whether they were symptomatic or not, returning en masse as World War I wound down.

Like most any disease or misfortune, Spanish Influenza was an equal-opportunity scourge. Precious infants, strapping young men, sun-to-sun homemaking moms, the frail elderly, the rich, the poor, the famous, the loner – were fair game.

The Sept. 30 Telegraph eulogized the Rev. Francis Mulvanity, a 30-year-old “beloved priest,” and Dr. Dennis M. Shea, 43, who “worked day and night relieving suffering during the epidemic” and “left his own sickbed to try and care for his patients” just days before his death.

There were close to 20 death notices in that Sept. 30 paper, from a 3-year-old child to the priest and doctor.

Some may not have been flu-related, but most likely were. It also appears the epidemic peaked right around then.

With October came some, albeit slight, improvement. Though the Oct. 14 paper stated 75 kids were still sick at the St. Joseph Orphanage and reported the deaths of two teenagers and four people in their 20s – including Ward 9 alderman Wilfred Lagasse, 29 – officials felt comfortable with their assertion that “epidemic conditions are much better … shops and factories report a general return of employees” and they were seeing “a marked decrease in reports of deaths and new cases.”

They even went as far as to declare the epidemic would be “stamped out by the end of October,” prompting the Nashua Telegraph to write, “Everyone is highly encouraged … doctors are now looking forward to a time when they can have just one good night’s rest.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).