EDITOR’S NOTE: Following up on our flu coverage

CHARLES TOWN – We heard some interesting feedback after last week’s story by Christine Miller Ford on flu season.

The article included quotes from physicians on why they recommend flu shots for most people age 6 months and older. The story also included some local residents who shy away from flu shots, believing they’re better served by pursuing a healthy lifestyle, i.e. eating lots of vegetables and fruits, staying fit, getting a good night’s rest and so on.

Reader Bonnie Fridley grew up in West Virginia but now lives in Aberdeen, S.D., where her husband, Dr. Larry Sidaway, is a cardiologist. “He has always gotten a flu shot as do I,” Fridley wrote to us.

I too got the first flu shot of my adult life. In years past, I assumed I could weather any bug and never bothered to get a flu shot. I elected to do get one this year with the addition of Laura-Elyse to the family in June.

But what to say to those who believe their healthy choices will let them sidestep the flu? “His comment after I told him about this was that one need only go to an old cemetery and notice all the deaths that occurred in 1918,” Fridley said. “The great influenza wiped out entire families, killing 50 million people worldwide, and history will repeat itself with another deadly outbreak at some point in time.

“Having the flu shot, even if not the exact flu strain, will help mitigate the severity of flu symptoms and result in decreased mortality. The people of 1918 drank plenty of water, ate whole foods, and got plenty of exercise and that did not save them from the flu.”

It’s awfully hard to argue with that.

In the days after Fridley wrote, I found myself thinking about her warning often – and delving into the history of that fast-moving pandemic.

The West Virginia Encyclopedia says that on Oct. 5, 1918, the state superintendent of health ordered “all affected persons be quarantined, and all public places be closed. Many people wore face masks when they went out in public and while caring for the sick.”

Nonetheless, more than 71,000 West Virginians are known to have contracted influenza between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15, and 2,818 were reported as having died of it. In 1918, the flu and its complications were reported as the cause of death in a full quarter of all deaths recorded in the state.

No one is sure just how many people in West Virginia – or worldwide – got the flu or died from it. With physicians and other caregivers overwhelmed, accurate record-keeping couldn’t be the priority.

So many were dying in Jefferson County and elsewhere across the state, coroners could not afford to spend much time on death certificates. They began to skip over details such as the deceased’s birthdate and parents’ names and to include just the essentials – name, town of residence, the date of death and the word “influenza” as the cause of death.

Some 500 flu victims are said to be buried in unmarked graves in Martinsburg’s Green Hill Cemetery, according to Don Silvius of the Berkeley County Historical Society. “They could not keep up with the burials,” he said. “They were building part of the Interwoven complex at the time and the survivors of the crew buried these dead.”

The 1918 epidemic fundamentally altered the life of one of the state’s most revered leaders.

Robert C. Byrd, the nation’s longest-serving U.S. Senator when he died in 2010, was born in North Carolina. Nine days before his first birthday, the 31-year-old mother of Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. died of the flu.

Calvin Sr. followed his wife’s wishes and sent their five children out to be raised by relatives. Titus and Vlurma Byrd adopted the baby and raised him in the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

— Robert Snyder


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