The 1918 Flu in Virginia

A pandemic is a disease that spreads across an entire country or, as is feared with the avian flu virus, throughout the world. The 1918 Spanish Flu was a worldwide pandemic that took at least 20 million lives.

Though the 1918 flu bypassed VMI, the Institute is no stranger to illness. In 1903 and 1910, VMI suspended operations due to epidemics of typhoid. In 1928, flu put more than 300 cadets on the sick list and required the establishment of a temporary hospital in Jackson Memorial Hall.

The 1918 flu provides public health officials with model of a worldwide pandemic as they make plans for a potential future pandemic. In kicking off the planning effort in Virginia, the Honorable Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, made these comments at the Virginia State Summit on Avian Flu on March 23, 2006:

That Great Pandemic also touched Virginia.

Navy personnel in Virginia were afflicted with influenza in early September, though the state did not report those cases for about two weeks. By the last week of September, the pandemic had taken hold in Newport News and Norfolk, and in Petersburg and Portsmouth. It raged all across Virginia throughout the cruel month of October.

Virginians did what they could to contain it. Schools were closed. Public meetings and weekend parties were banned. Even the State Fair was closed early on account of the flu. By mid-October, Virginia had seen more than 200,000 cases of influenza. By the end of the year, more than 15,000 Virginians would die.

When it comes to pandemics, there is no rational basis to believe that the early years of the 21st century will be different than the past. If a pandemic strikes, it will come to Virginia.