Lessons from the 1918 Flu Epidemic

Posted on in Healthy Living by Dana Ullman

Conventional Medicine vs. Homeopathy

Every fall and winter the media begin pumping out stories about why we should be afraid—even very afraid—of the flu. This is the 100th anniversary of the famous 1918 flu epidemic when 50 million people died. So the fear factor is further sensationalized. But what Big Media won’t tell you is that Big Medicine of that era caused a large number of these deaths. Let me explain…

It is widely recognized that fever is the body’s vital defense in fighting infection. A fever enables the body to increase interferon production, a critical antiviral substance. Fever also increases white blood cell mobility and activity, which are instrumental for fighting infection.

Red Cross workers remove a flu victim in St. Louis, Missouri (1918)
Red Cross workers remove a flu victim in St. Louis, Missouri (1918)

In 1918 conventional physicians commonly assumed that people with a fever should take aspirin or some other fever-suppressing drug. Conveniently enough, in 1899 the German company, Bayer, began marketing aspirin as its new miracle cure. Aspirin was sold not only as a painkiller but also as a fever reducer. Although one might initially (and naively) think that it is a good idea to lower a fever, such actions actually inhibit the body’s efforts to defend against infection. Ingesting aspirin is akin to tying the hands behind the back before trying to fight flu.

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston

It turns out Bayer’s aspirin patent in the US expired in February 1917, thereby allowing any company to manufacture and distribute aspirin at extremely low prices. This led to a perfect storm for the over-prescription of
cheap drug that was encouraged by medical organizations, medical journals, and the military. What was not known at the time was that aspirin had a seriously dark side.

While it’s hard to imagine today, at the time JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) actually recommended the equivalent of 25 standard 325-mg aspirin tablets per day. Shockingly, according to Smithsonian Magazine, some medical authorities recommended up to 250 aspirin tablets per day.

Death from influenza is usually the province of infants and the elderly, but what was so unusual about the 1918 epidemic was how many 18- to 40-year-olds died. Why? One logical explanation is that the military at that time had stockpiled huge amounts of aspirin. Military enlistees, falling predominantly in the 18- to 40-year-old category, had easy access to medical treatment and were treated with superhigh doses of aspirin. In retrospect we know that so many people at that time died of pneumonia with significant amounts of blood in the lungs—a condition aspirin is known to cause.

Unless and until doctors learn to respect fever as important to the body’s defense we may yet again experience unnecessary deaths from this usually innocuous disease.

Safer, Homeopathic Treatment of Influenza

In 1919, Dr. W. A. Dewey was a homeopathic physician and professor at the University of Michigan. He was tasked with evaluating the deaths from influenza recorded at 101 homeopathic institutions at the time. Who would have thought there were so many—but these included Boston University, University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, Hahnemann Medical College, and Ohio State University, among many others. It is impressive that more than a hundred years ago these same 101 institutions provided specialized training in homeopathy—and treated approximately 750,000 patients. At these various homeopathic medical schools and hospitals they experienced a mere .5% to 4% death rate for infuenza, as compared to the 30% mortality figure common in conventional hospitals of that time.

Homeopathy’s success in treating the notorious flu of 1918 was not surprising either. The leading reason homeopathy gained such popularity in the 19th century was its significant success rate treating the infectious diseases of that era: scarlet fever, typhoid, yellow fever, and cholera.

Bringing this historical flu perspective up to date, three large modern studies have tested Oscillococcinum, a popular French homeopathic anti-flu remedy, and found it to be clinically effective. One study revealed that 70% of those who took the homeopathic remedy healed from the flu within 48 hours versus those who took a placebo.

The premise of homeopathy is that patients are given “nanodoses” of the underlying infecting agent corresponding to the ailment they are suffering. The homeopathic healing occurs as a result of the nanodose triggering the body’s own adequate immunological response. Of special interest with the flu is that Oscillococcinum is made from the liver and heart of a duck. Biologists have long acknowledged that ducks are a type of bird that carry a wide variety of influenza viruses in their digestive tracts and are thus a vector in the spread of various types of flu viruses, including those that cause the “bird flu.”

Ultimately, doctors and patients need to learn from past errors, especially with respect to welcoming the wisdom of the human body. Symptoms of the body, including fever, are important defenses against infection. Instead of using drugs that suppress this inherent wisdom, it might make sense to try homeopathic medicines and other natural medicines that are designed to augment the body’s own immunological capacities. And this with less degenerative long-term side effects.

Dana Ullman, MPH, CCH, is a certified homeopath who has written 10 books on homeopathy and four chapters in medical textbooks, and has co-published 40 books on homeopathy with North Atlantic Books. His websites are HomeopathicFamilyMedicine.com and Homeopathic.com

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