As flu deaths rise, Philadelphia parade in 1918 offers cautionary tale on spread of influenza

Pennsylvania’s influenza death toll rose by 26 last week, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 91 since the season began Oct. 1, according to the state Department of Health.

Flu season has a long way to go — it runs through May — and this year’s outbreak has been especially widespread and severe. The flu vaccine, formulated to defend against several strains of the illness, has been largely ineffective against this year’s dominant strain, the fast-mutating H3N2 virus.

The headlines are scary, but exactly a century ago, an incredibly virulent flu killed some 50 million people — perhaps as many as 100 million, some estimates say — around the world. The so-called Spanish flu is the benchmark against which all other pandemics are measured.

Still, on the eve of a Super Bowl victory parade that may draw 2 million people to Philadelphia, some find it a bit unnerving to look back on that epidemic and discover that a giant parade was one of the ways the flu took hold in that city.

Despite reports that the dangerous flu was spreading in the fall of 1918, about 200,000 people lined the streets for a parade to publicize war bonds.

Days later, 635 new cases of flu were reported. By the time the pandemic faded, about 13,000 residents of the city had died of the illness.

Philadelphia’s delay in instituting public health measures stood in sharp contrast to the way other cities responded. St. Louis, for example, canceled public gatherings, closed schools, required masks and took other steps to prevent the spread of flu. As a result, its death toll was about one-eighth of Philadelphia’s.

No one is suggesting the Eagles cancel their parade, of course. The current flu isn’t remotely as severe as the 1918 one.

In that outbreak, people could wake up healthy and be mortally ill by nightfall. On Oct. 15, 1918, newspapers reported the case of Daniel Malone, a south Bethlehem man who traveled to Shenandoah for the funeral of his brother, a flu victim. Malone was stricken with the illness during the funeral and quickly died.

There have been more than 47,000 reported cases of the flu in Pennsylvania this flu season, officials said. Of those, 1,541 cases have been reported in Lehigh County through Saturday, up 356 from the prior week, and 2,343 in Northampton County, up 707 from the prior week.

The previous flu season, which ran from October 2016 into September 2017 for statistical purposes, led to 149 deaths statewide. Of those, four of the deceased Pennsylvanians were younger than 18 while 120 were 65 years or older. There were more than 71,000 reported cases in Pennsylvania during that flu season, including 2,889 cases in Lehigh and 3,307 cases in Northampton counties.

The flu remains categorized as “widespread” by the department, meaning at least half the regions in the state have outbreaks of the flu. About 600,000 to 2.4 million Pennsylvanians will get the flu this year, experts predict, and 120 to 2,000 will die, according to the health department.

It’s the worst outbreak since 2009, when the so-called swine flu — a variant of the 1918 strain — killed as many as 200,000 worldwide.

Staff writer Daniel Patrick Sheehan contributed to this story.

INFLUENZA SEASONAL STATISTICS

Statistics from Oct. 1 to Feb. 3:

Number of reported cases statewide: 47,752

Number of reported cases in Lehigh County: 1,541

Number of reported cases in Northampton County: 2,343

Number of influenza-related deaths: 91

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health

matt.coughlin@mcall.com

Twitter @coughlinreports

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