“American Experience: Influenza 1918” – The PBS Special

The year 1918 was part of the era covering the growth of the world as we know it through World War I. It was a long and arduous battle that America was not involved with at first, but later on, found the nation in the thick of action anyway. As the soldiers were sent overseas to fight for the cause of democracy and freedom, they were exposed to various elements little understood by the science and medicine of the time.

These viral elements were taken back to America during its incubation period within the now infected American. All the symptoms of the illness came to the fore once he landed on American soil. Thus, the unknown infection came to American shores and infected a multitude of the populace in the process. The PBS special “American Experience: Influenza 1918” chronicles the military experience with the illness, the misdiagnosis that occurred, and the eventual disappearance of the virus.

The show made it very clear that the influenza outbreak was nothing short of a pandemic that spread far and wide across U.S. territories. Where ever that was a military base with soldiers returning from the war, the signs of influenza were to be seen. Symptoms included fever, sore throat, and headaches. The areas of the U.S. that were affected include Kansas, Boston, and Pennsylvania. In totality, the Influenza Plague took over 150 thousand American man, woman, and child lives.

Due to the lack of knowledge as to what triggered the illness or where it stemmed from, it was misdiagnosed as the bubonic plague which was also existing in Europe at the time. There was a high rate of the belief that the illness had come to America by way of Spain due to the little information that reached America about the Bubonic Plague existing in the other area of the world at the time. Sadly, nobody bothered to correct the error and that misinformation still exists to this very day.

Doctors were puzzled by the illness at the time and could not properly diagnose the illness as being viral or airborne due to the limited capabilities that the scientific microscopes of the time had. In the end, the medical professionals chose to instead hazard a guess and call the virus airborne. Even though they tried to create vaccines to combat the illness, nothing worked because nothing was really known about the virus. Homeopathic medicines of the time only did more harm than good as well.

Puzzling as it may seem, the illness seemed to be incurable by medical science and, just like the common cold, seemed to instead run in a series of cycles. Just like any pandemic virus, it seemed to latch on to the various organisms that it came into contact with. This allowed it to spread wildly out of control until it seemed that the human body itself created its own immunity to the constantly mutating virus. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared into oblivion leaving the medical world with very little knowledge or understanding of how everything had happened. What had caused it? How was it cured?

After watching the film, I decided that the American Influenza pandemic was more lethal than the Bubonic Plague because of the treachery of the illness. You could be plowing the field one minute and dropping dead the next. Since very little was learned when the illness was spreading across the nation and possibly the globe, it is highly possible that we could see a recurrence of the illness in the future since the world is now, more than ever before, interconnected and sharing more than just products in the supermarkets. A plague in China could spread to the U.S. in a few days and that is a terrifying thought for anybody to think about.