In the fall of 1918 as World War I was nearing its end, a deadly flu virus began infecting large numbers of people all over the world. The virus brought an unexpectedly high mortality rate, resulting in millions of deaths. In the United States, the American Red Cross became an important player in combating one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history
The pandemic hit in two phases. The first phase began in the fall of 1918 and the second in the spring of 1919. A conservative estimate given by historians puts the world-wide death toll at 21 million lives. In this country, the total number of victims attributed to the flu varies, from 540,000 dead to more than 675,000.
As the flu outbreak grew into a pandemic, the Red Cross formed a National Committee on Influenza to coordinate the wide ranging response. On October 1, 1918 the Surgeon General of the United States, Rupert Blue, outlined a plan of action for this newly formed committee. The plan for Red Cross involvement included:
Supplying Nursing Personnel
The Red Cross received its first urgent request on September 14, 1918 for trained nurses from the U.S. Public Health Service for a quarantine station in Boston Harbor. The need for help would grow as the disease spread rapidly and the demand for trained medical staff soon surpassed the supply.
The Red Cross was asked to find nursing personnel and in about two months - from September 14 to November 7, 1918 - recruited a total of 15,000 nurses, student nurses, practical nurses, nurse's aides and women who had taken the Red Cross Home Hygiene course. Despite the high risks of infection and death, these women stepped forward to serve the military and civilians. A total of 223 nurses and five dieticians are known to have died while providing aid to flu victims.
Red Cross Chapters Mobilized
Red Cross chapters immediately organized committees on influenza. Working with the local public health officer, the chapter would survey available nursing staff and hospital supplies in its area and mobilize them when the epidemic hit the community.
Relief for the Armed Forces
During World War I thousands of men were drafted and sent to temporary camps called "cantonments" before they went overseas. The military camps were crowded with only very basic medical facilities. Some of the highest flu mortality rates were found in these camps. The men's barracks became temporary hospital wards and the Red Cross stepped in with badly needed bedding, masks, feeding tools, and cleaning supplies acquired through its Camp Service division. Hundreds of additional nurses were also recruited and supplied to the military for the emergency. By the time World War I ended, more U.S. soldiers had died of the influenza virus than from combat-related injuries.
On November 2, 1918, the U.S. Public Health Service reported 115,000 civilian deaths from influenza and pneumonia. The Red Cross quickly set up and staffed improvised influenza wards in any available community building. Schools, armories, railroad stations and country clubs were all pressed into service for this unprecedented medical emergency.
Canteens were also set up to feed people who could not receive food at home because of illness in the family. The newly formed Red Cross Motor Corps (established 1917) became indispensable, transporting nurses, doctors and patients and supplies to and from the influenza wards. The Motor Corps consisted almost entirely of women volunteers, most of whom used their own cars.
The speed and severity of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was unlike any viral outbreak the world had ever known. The Red Cross responded to the crisis, supplying not only nurses and health care professionals but a whole system of logistical support that saved many lives during the pandemic.