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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

The Swine Flu: Is it deja vu?

The "Spanish Flu" in 1918-1919 also was likely related to pigs; it killed 3,675 Oregon residents, but much has changed since then.

As the warm, dry days of summer start spreading out over our calendars, most of us have already forgotten about something that was all over the news just a couple weeks ago.

Swine flu is now known officially as the "H1N1 flu," after friends of pigs and pork made their displeasure known. But, of course, it got that name because it jumped to humans from hogs. And that in itself is disturbing, because two of the ugliest flu seasons in American history came to us the same way: The 1975 season — and the one in 1918.

The 1918 analogy is especially troubling. It hit the country three times: A mild smattering of cases in the spring, followed by a torrent of sickness in the fall and an even worse one in early 1919.

Well, we just ended our spring, with a smattering of swine flu cases. Could we be looking at history repeating itself?

The 1918 epidemic hit Oregon hard, but the statistics aren't as frightening as the legends that have come down to us through the years. Out of an Oregon population of about 750,000, 48,146 got sick with the dreaded flu and 3,675 died. So roughly 15 percent — one out of every seven people! — came down with it.

If you were unlucky enough to be in that 15 percent, you had a 92.5 percent chance of surviving it anyway.

The bottom line is that for any Oregon resident in 1918, the chance of dying of the flu was one half of one percent. This is not to trivialize or laugh off a five-in-1,000 fatality rate, but it wasn't the bubonic plague in Europe or the German measles among the Kalapuya peoples.

Still, it was an ugly time. People had just gotten back from the war and were in no mood to lock themselves in their homes and cover their mouths with diaper-like masks.

Health officials were nearly panic-stricken. They knew they were looking at a potentially catastrophic epidemic, but they couldn't get anyone to take it seriously, even after a few died of its effects the previous spring.

The cities of Corvallis and Portland closed movie theaters, and dance halls and other gathering places were temporarily shut down. Business owners howled — those inside city limits with rage and those outside with glee.

People simply traveled a bit more for their social gatherings. And, unfortunately, many of them paid a heavy price for it.

Today, the swine flu seems to have left us alone for the summer. But if it follows the pattern of 1918 and returns this fall with a vengeance, there's one thing Oregonians should keep in mind:

First, many of the people who died of the flu in 1918 didn't die of the flu. They died of secondary infections such as pneumonia — infections that, today, respond well to antibiotics. So even if this flu is just as bad, it won't kill nearly as many people. Plus, not having just won a war, people are much more likely to take doctors' advice and not go out socializing if so advised.

By the way, the "Spanish Flu" seems to have been particularly amenable to traditional Chinese medicine. In 1918, a Chinese herbalist named Ing Hay was counted a municipal treasure in John Day. Almost everyone in town and for miles around in the surrounding country was a patient of Doc Hay. After Oregon had counted its dead, not a single one of those 3,675 unfortunate souls that died was one of his patients.

(Sources: www.ohs.org; U.S. Census Bureau; Pintarch, Dick & al. "Year of the Plague: The Swine Flu Pandemic of 1918," Great Moments in Oregon History, 118. Portland: New Oregon, 1987)

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