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The Great Pandemic of 1918: Louisiana

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  • The Great Pandemic of 1918: Louisiana

    That Great Pandemic also touched Louisiana.

    As the pandemic began to spread around the country in 1918, the president of the New Orleans Board of Health announced that the city's climate would prevent a high mortality rate if the flu ever did come to the city. He would be proven tragically wrong.

    Though exact dates and numbers are not known for sure, the disease probably came to New Orleans during the first week of September-around the same time the steamship Harold Walker set sail from Boston for New Orleans. The pandemic was already raging in Boston, and so, before the Harold Walker arrived in New Orleans, 15 passengers had been struck, and three had already perished. By the time the Harold Walker docked in New Orleans, those afflicted found they were not alone. The pandemic was already raging in Louisiana.

    By the third week of September, thousands were being afflicted. Hundreds were dying.

    By the end of October, 14,000 people in New Orleans had been struck by the flu. More than 800 had died.

    People were desperate for a cure.

    One doctor in New Orleans believed sulfur would "kill the germ." He advised his patients to "put a small amount of sulfur in each shoe each morning, and goodbye influenza." To make sure the sulfur was "working," he told his patients to carry a silver dollar in their pockets. According to the doctor, the silver would change color in reaction to the sulfur emitted by the body.

    The sulfur did not work. Few things did.

    The pandemic finally ended, but the dreadful memories remained.

    A year later, the flu erupted again in New Orleans. By the time it had afflicted just a handful of people, the terror of the previous year was sufficient to trigger alarm. A Public Health Service officer sent an urgent telegram to Surgeon General Blue reporting: "Ten cases influenza...Doctor Kibbe reports spreading rapidly."

    When it comes to pandemics, there is no rational basis to believe that the early years of the 21st century will be different than the past. If a pandemic strikes, it will come to Louisiana.
    "Safety and security don't just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear."
    -Nelson Mandela