EDMONTON—When Albertans picked up the newspaper 100 years ago, a simple message was repeated in the fine print across the pages: Don’t be afraid.
It wasn’t a reference to the Great War: The armistice between the World War I allies and Germany was weeks away from being signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. But another threat was closer to home and just as insidious: In the end, 50,000 Canadians lost their lives in the pandemic.
The news about influenza was so grim that newspapers downplayed its severity out of concern for public morale, explained Suzanna Wagner, a University of Alberta master’s student researching one of the deadliest influenza outbreaks in the world.
Initially the papers didn’t report on it at all. It later became known as the Spanish Flu because Spain was the first country to name the threat.
“It was the young, healthy people that were getting sick and dying, primarily,” said Wagner. As Canadians were just coming to terms with the losses of war, “now the flu is coming in and killing more.”
While the Spanish Flu has long since passed, strains just like it are alive and well today. Public-health officials warn that it’s important to remember the harsh lessons of the past so we can be prepared for the next big outbreak.
The pandemic hit Canada between 1918 and 1920, with the deadliest wave occurring in late 1918, according to historians. The flu killed around 55,000 people in Canada, most of whom were young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, according to government archives.
Around 4,700 of those died in Alberta between late October 1918 to 1919 — exact dates are hard to pin down, Wagner said, due to poor record keeping — when the flu outbreak was at its deadliest.
Newspapers reported provincial bans on large gatherings, which prompted the closure of schools, churches and cinemas for months at a time, Wagner said. They also emphasized following basic precautions, like carrying personal handkerchiefs, and discouraged giving into panic — “almost giving the impression that if you give in to fear, you might get sick,” Wagner said.
A provincial edict made it mandatory in Alberta to wear face masks outside the home, starting on Oct. 26, 1918. Before the enforcement of masks was lifted on Nov. 23, hospitals were struggling to keep up with the rising number of cases. Around 31,000 cases of influenza were reported in the province in 1918.
In Edmonton, there weren’t enough hospital beds, which cost $2.50 a night in the pre-universal health care days. The shortage prompted the city to turn to the University of Alberta for help, which resulted in Pembina Hall being turned into a 123-bed emergency ward from Oct. 26 to Nov. 27, 1918. By the time it was shut down, 72 people died there.
Similar efforts were made in Calgary at Colonel Walker School, Wagner said, but of the two big cities in Alberta, Edmonton was hit worse: 445 people died in Edmonton in 1918 versus 340 in Calgary.
“Calgary actually got off pretty lightly in terms of fatalities,” Wagner said.
Newspaper records show many children were orphaned. Wagner recalled one heartbreaking story in which two young children ran into a nurse on the street outside their home in Edmonton and reported that their mother would not talk to them. They were not old enough to comprehend that she was dead.
An immense pandemic like the Spanish Flu imparted many lessons, said Wagner. In Edmonton, newspapers called upon people to volunteer to take care of the ill, as there weren’t enough nurses to keep up with the demand, reflecting a spirit of generosity and even sacrifice that shone through during a grim time.
The pandemic also played a big role in planting the seeds for the creation of a federal department of health in 1919, according to Mark Humphries, a researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University. Later named Health Canada in 1993, the department was the first dedicated body within the government responsible for “all matters and questions relating to the promotion of the health and social welfare of the people of Canada,” according to the House of Commons debates at the time.
Spanish Flu is not much different from the flu nowadays in terms of symptoms, such as fever, aches and coughs. The difference, however, was the lack of understanding of the illness at the time. Doctors falsely believed it was derived from bacteria, not a virus, Wagner said, which led to ineffective treatments.
The influenza virus continues to circulate around the world, but a lot more information has been obtained within the past century on what the virus is, how it changes over time and, most importantly, how to protect vulnerable people from it, according to Dr. Chris Sikora, a public health officer with Alberta Health Services (AHS).
“We have immunization as a tool to help protect the population,” he said.
AHS data shows only around a quarter of Alberta’s population has received the flu shot consistently over the last three years. Sikora said it’s important to remain vigilant and get immunized as the emergence of a new, dangerous virus is always possible.
“The reality is that flu is a disease that is still out there, and it causes pandemics,” Humphries echoed. “This could in some ways happen again.”