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hispaania gripi kirjeldus

Memories of 1918 flu pandemic haunt 21st century
Sun May 21, 2006 10:37am ET
By Toni Reinhold

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As health agencies worldwide scramble to stop bird flu from becoming a pandemic that could claim millions of lives, memories of the murderous flu that swept the globe almost 100 years ago haunt the 21st century, passed on from generation to generation, or, in my case, from grandmother to granddaughter.

My grandmother lived through the Great War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War Two, the cultural revolution of the '60s and three decades beyond.

There was little that could threaten her nerve but until the day she died, Marie Starace was afraid of two things. One was lightning. The other was "The Grip" -- the deadly flu that wreaked havoc on the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood where she was born and raised.

So vivid were her memories of the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 that whenever she saw us with open coats and throats exposed to the cold, she would gravely warn: "Button up or you'll get the grip." When I was a teenager -- about 50 years after the horrible episode -- I had the sense to ask what this dreaded "grip" was.

"It was a terrible thing. So many people died from the grip when I was a little girl that it seemed like every family lost someone," my grandmother told me.

"It was heartbreaking to see mothers crying for their children. Some of them lost two and three children. I'll never forget one woman crying in my mother's arms because she lost her children and her husband."

"People didn't want to say when someone in their house was sick because the place would be quarantined and no one could get out to work," Granna recalled.

"Some people went out in the middle of the night to get the undertaker because they didn't want it to get around that someone in their house had died from the flu. They were afraid of being reported to the Health Department and quarantined."


The flu that killed an estimated 20 million to 100 million people worldwide was known in the United States as the Spanish flu or "La Grippe" because it ravaged Spain early on.

Studies show that it was caused by an avian flu virus -- the H1N1 strain -- that could be passed from human to human. The fear today is that the current H5N1 strain of bird flu could mutate and do the same.

In 1918, word of the illness in Europe was carried to Brooklyn's shores by troops returning from the battlefields of World War One and seamen who helped breathe life into New York City's ports. It was suspected that some of them carried the flu as well.

My grandmother lived on Van Brunt Street in an area of Brooklyn known as Red Hook. Folks on Van Brunt called their patch Erie Basin for the water basin that was a port to ships from around the world. My great-grandfather, Salvator Starace, earned a living there as a longshoreman and ship's pilot.

Erie Basin bustled with hard-living, hard-working families, many of them European immigrants and their children.

Granna had her ninth birthday on November 11, 1918 -- the day peace was declared in "the war to end all wars" -- and she hiked to an armory with throngs of Brooklynites to mark the day. It was a long walk from the docks but for a precocious youngster it was part of the thrilling and gritty life of early 20th century Brooklyn.

"There was a big parade. I marched alongside the soldiers and one of them gave me a nickel. People were crying because the war was over," she recalled.

An ocean of tears would be shed in the months that followed as the country returned to mourning -- this time for victims of The Grip.


"Momma would make soup and bring it to the sick," Granna told me. "A lot of them were very poor and the war didn't help. We didn't have so much but she did the best she could."

As the flu spread, my great-grandmother, Antonia, had to take greater care lest she bring it home to her children. "It got so bad that momma had to leave the soup at people's front doors," she said.

The Grip caused high fevers, headaches, coughing, pain, and a pneumonia so virulent that it left people struggling for breath until they suffocated. Death came quickly by many accounts.

"They had a hacking cough and raging fevers," Granna said. "But they couldn't go to hospitals even if they wanted to because they were filled up. And they died so fast."

By many accounts, hospital staffs were severely depleted as doctors and nurses succumbed to the flu. "Men who had been medics in the Army tried to help the sick. But there was no place to put them," Granna said.

Children skipped rope to the rhyme "I had a little bird, Its name was Enza. I opened the window and in-flu-enza." Meanwhile, evidence of the scourge around them mounted.

The city handed out gauze masks to stem the spread of the flu. In Erie Basin, "People tied handkerchiefs and scarves around their faces to protect themselves when they went outside," Granna recalled.

"It seemed like there was a black wreath on almost every door," my grandmother said of the markers of loss. "So many people died that they ran out of space for the dead. Bodies were put on ice inside horse-drawn trucks that came around to pick up the dead. There were hardly any funerals. I don't know how they could have had that many funerals. And besides, people were afraid to go to church."


By a number of accounts, bodies piled up as morgues ran out of space and the supply of coffins dwindled. At a time when wakes for the dead were often held at home, funerals were restricted to only minutes to limit people's exposure to each other.

Potters Field, a burial ground for the poor and anonymous on Hart Island in New York City, became a resting place for some of Erie Basin's dead because their families couldn't afford cemetery plots, my grandmother said.

"No one really knew what to do. No one knew how to treat it. What could anyone do? You couldn't stop living," Granna said.

In 1918, 4,514 people in Brooklyn died from influenza from a population of 1,798,513, according to almanacs published in 1918 and 1920 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper. Thousands more had been infected but survived.

Over the years, I spent many hours with my grandmother talking about the past and her memories of The Grip were consistent. I walked the streets of Erie Basin with her when I was a little girl, visiting her father who lived on Van Brunt street until he died in the 1960s. My great-grandmother died in the 1970s. Granna died in 1996.

But as I read the stories about the spread of bird flu today and six members of a family in north Sumatra dying from the H5N1 virus in eight days, I hear Granna's voice warning: "Button up or you'll get The Grip."

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