What Happened When Regina Got the Spanish Flu Vaccine?
· 9 min. read
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To start with, there was no Spanish Influenza vaccine.
Or at least, not one that was of any use.
In 1918, scientists didn't have the capability to see viruses, similar to how we don't have the capability to see dark matter today. They knew something was there but it was an enigma. In fact, they thought it was a poisonous chemical, which is why they coined it a "virus", which means a "slimy liquid or poison" in Latin.
Eventually, the vaccine was developed in the 1930s. Although it didn't help with the 1918 pandemic, a variant of that vaccine was used to help with the subsequent 1957, 1968, 1977, and 2009 influenza pandemics.
But if you open any newspaper from late in 1918, including Regina's The Morning Leader, you can even find articles about the vaccine. In fact, Saskatchewan's Provincial Health Commissioner, Dr. Maurice Seymour, made an official statement regarding it. Six thousand vials of this vaccine were shipped directly to Regina, and Dr. Maurice, Mayor Henry Black and the "Spanish Influenza Relief Committee" even took it.
But what was it? And did it help?
To begin, this wasn't the first touted "cure" for the virus. Some health authorities said the best way to prevent getting sick is to "stay warm, keep your feet dry and keep your bowels empty". This is good advice, but not helpful to prevent contracting the virus. Other remedies were homeopathic and natural, like eating garlic and spices or placing cut onions around the house to "soak" the toxins in the air. We have some evidence that this helped, especially in Germantown, but the findings are inconclusive.
In Regina, there was over-the-counter medication you could buy too, such as "Fruit-a-tives" which were fruit flavoured tablets touted as a preventative to the pandemic. They didn't work, and neither did the specialized shirts local businesses claimed prevented people from getting sick.
There were other actual medical remedies too. In Canada, people were prescribed alcohol to deal with the symptoms ? although it probably didn't help the cyanosis or the bloody projectile vomiting. In the United States, they tried using the anti-malaria drug chloroquine... which after many trials, proved to not do anything. They then tried the newly discovered drug "Aspirin", which they prescribed at three to four times the lethal dosage. Over a quarter of all Spanish Influenza deaths in the United States were due to Aspirin poisoning.
Back in Saskatchewan, Thomas Walter Scott said, prior to over 5,000 Saskatchewan residents dying from the pandemic and tens of thousands more losing their livelihood thanks to the economic lockdowns; "Fear of any disease only invites attack by the disease, and in my view an entirely unwarranted and unnecessary alarm is being increased and is liable to add considerably to the death rate."
Clearly, we have learned nothing.
But what was the Spanish Flu vaccine? Well, there were several vaccines being created around the world, all of which approached the problem differently. One, out of Camp Fremont, California, was a blood coagulum. Autopsy reports showed that many of the victims had thinned blood vessels that broke with even the slightest movement. This would cause people with a heavy cough to have blood vessels in their lungs break, and then slowly suffocate in their own blood. By taking this coagulum, their blood would be thicker and the hemorrhaging not as bad.
This was compounded by other autopsy reports that people who died from the virus would often "crackle" when moved as the air from their lungs would go into the bloodstream, making their flesh become a lovely organic bubble-wrap.
The coagulum approach was smart, and it saved over 300 people at Camp Fremont, but it wasn't a vaccine ? it was just a treatment.
Another touted vaccine was created by the bacteria Bacillus influenzae as well as strains of pneumococcus, streptococcus, staphylococcus, and Moraxella catarrhalis bacteria. They even tried the common-cold vaccine, made from "Pfeiffer's influenza bacillus". These could help prevent the pneumonia the victims suffered from, but not the actual virus itself. The virus caused pneumonia to form, so stopping it was important, but it didn't solve the actual problem. Think of it like patching up a wound after being cut with a knife. The careless usage of the knife is the problem, not the wound itself.
Saskatchewan's Laboratory Bureau of Public Health made one such vaccine and administered it throughout the province. What exactly it was, or what bacterial pneumonia it targeted, is unknown. There's a good chance it was a diphtheria antitoxin, as many of the city minutes discussed the distribution of diphtheria serum. But it really doesn't matter. The vaccine did nothing to stop the Spanish Influenza. If anything, it gave people a false sense of security and more people died because of that.
The first to receive the vaccine in Regina was the "Spanish Influenza Relief Committee", then "medical men" and then the general population. This began on November 1st, 1918, and carried on throughout the month. There were talks of enforcing a mandatory vaccination, but it never materialised.
On October 31st, it was announced Regina had about 3,000 cases of Spanish Influenza and 134 residents had died from it. By November 4th, that number was 179. By November 14, it was 236. By November 23, it was 256. The pandemic did not slow down because of the vaccine.
The virus slowed during the holiday season but picked back up during March and April of 1919. By that time thousands across Saskatchewan were dead. When the pandemic ended, 330 Regina residents were also dead. Over a hundred more died in the city but came from outlying communities.
This "third wave" of the Spanish Flu was deadly but not as deadly as the "second wave". Why this happened is unknown. Could it be because the virus had evolved into a weaker form of itself, after realizing it wasn't beneficial to kill off its host? Was it because people had built an immunity to it? Was it the warmer temperatures? Or was it because it culled all the susceptible people?
We don't know the answers, but it wasn't because of the vaccine. Evidence shows that even after distributing the vaccine, people still got sick, people still died, and eventually... people continued to live their lives. The pandemic faded away in 1920 but that isn't what the decade is known for. The "Roaring Twenties" are known for their wild parties, jazz music, and overflowing wealth. Regina became a booming hub and Saskatchewan transformed into one of the wealthiest places in North America during the 1920s.
Economies can recover, but dead people can't. Although a vaccine for COVID-19 is on its way ? with UK residents getting it as early as next week ? we need to remember that even with a vaccine, this pandemic is not over. People will still get sick, people will still die, and one day, when we can all see each other again, we will have a drink in memory of them.
But maybe lay off the Aspirin this time.
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Categories: Canada, COVID-19, Regina, Saskatchewan, Spanish Influenza