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History of life with flu was deadly

November 08, 2005|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

HAGERSTOWN

tiffanya@herald-mail.com

The scenes historian Melinda Marsden described could easily have been mistaken for a World War I battle.

Hundreds were killed at a time. The victims drowned in their own blood. There weren't enough people able or willing to bury the dead.

But this was no war scene. It is what life was like in Washington County during the 1918 flu epidemic, a pandemic historians say took more lives than World War I.

Marsden, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, spoke Monday night at the Washington County Free Library. The lecture was part of a six-month historical lecture series, said organizer John Frye, director of the library's Western Maryland Room.

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Marsden's lecture drew a large crowd, Frye said, given the recent interest in avian flu and flu vaccines. The library ran out of tickets to the event last month. Frye said the timeliness of Marsden's presentation was coincidental; he planned the series last year.

In her speech, Marsden shared historical accounts showing how the community stepped up in the midst of crises. The "Spanish Flu," as it is called, killed 400 Washington County residents, Marsden said. World War I killed 72, she said.

While local papers covered the 1918 epidemic, World War I news typically received more priority, Marsden said. Government and city officials were distracted by the war, often downplaying the effects of the disease on the county.

"The government's response was virtually nonexistent," she said.

The Washington County Commissioners made no mention of the epidemic in any of their minutes, Marsden said. The Hagerstown City Council addressed the issue in a few meetings.

The city canceled Halloween and shut down all public activity in October of 1918. They even canceled church, which upset many county citizens, Marsden said.

She said if it weren't for community support, flu victims and their families would have been left to fend for themselves. Unlike most flu strains, which have the greatest effect on children and senior citizens, the "Spanish Flu," as it is called, took out people in their prime, Marsden said.

A mother of six children - one of them only days old - was among the hundreds of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who died from the flu, according to a newspaper clipping, Marsden said.

Hagerstown citizens provided childcare for mothers and fathers stricken with the virus. Women delivered meals to sick households. They even created a temporary hospital for rail workers at the country club, Marsden said.

While scientists and historians are still trying to figure out what caused the epidemic, many have theorized that the "Spanish Flu" was a form of an avian flu, Marsden said.

She said current bird flu epidemic and the Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) breakout a few years ago showed that worldwide epidemics were still possible, given the advances in medicine.

William Christoffel, director of the Washington County Health Department, attended the lecture. He said the county has learned much from the 1918 epidemic and is better prepared.

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