Oct. 15, 1918: 50,000 cases of influenza reported in S.C.



Although the origin is still debated, it is thought that the first outbreak of influenza in the United States in 1918 occurred in Kansas. By March, more than 1,000 men were admitted to the hospital at Camp Funston in central Kansas. As these men were training for combat in World War I, the sickness spread to other Army camps, on to civilian populations and eventually, overseas. The disease hit South Carolina in the spring, and the first patients reported mild flu-like symptoms. As it spread, the symptoms became more and more severe.

The virus that carries influenza mutates quickly, which makes it difficult for the human immune system to recognize and attack it. Milder versions of the virus adhere to cells in places along the upper respiratory tract like the nose and throat, but the 1918 variety infected deeper tissue in the lungs, and this caused viral and bacterial pneumonia. By the fall of that year, the pandemic was in full force in S.C., and the state faced a shortage of hospital beds. The surgeon general approved federal funds to establish emergency hospitals throughout the state.

According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia, in 1918, Columbia had only 150 hospital beds. Temporary treatment centers were established in buildings at the University of South Carolina. In Spartanburg, the epidemic hit in September and by the end of the month, the city closed all public gathering locations. Charleston had a large military presence, and the board of health there prohibited any congregation of more than five people. The Citadel closed on Sept. 30. By Nov. 6, Charleston counted 5,643 cases of influenza and pneumonia with 229 related deaths. The epidemic found its way to Greenville on Oct. 4 and infected 1,000 people per day for the next four days.

One of the unique features of this pandemic was the high mortality rate among healthy people. Death rates rose to such staggering numbers that coffins and gravediggers could not be found. In some large cities, burials took place in mass graves. By mid-December, the outbreak weakened in S.C., but the state lost more than 14,000 people to influenza in 1918. In the nation, one quarter of the population fell ill, and about 675,000 deaths were recorded. Historians do note that the influenza crisis encouraged advances in public health care and sanitation and brought about heightened awareness of contagious diseases.