Some people thought the Spanish Flu that terrorized much of the world in 1918-19 by killing over 30 million people including 600,000 in the United States was named for its origin in Spain. The more reasonable explanation for the name is that as a neutral in World War I Spain was the only European country to admit of the disease's presence. The warring nations of France, Britain and Germany kept secret the devastating effects of the flu on their populations and front-line soldiers.

Spanish Flu spread following railroad lines and was more lethal in cities than in rural areas. It was deadly quick; one could contract it in the morning and be dead at night. And it struck mainly at the young and vigorous; 70 percent of its victims were between 15 and 35. Older persons perhaps had an immunity from previous viral infections. In Rochester and Fulton County, infants as young as 3 months and four years died; many were in their 20s, practically none was over 45.

Victims suffered a sudden fever, chills, headache, malaise, muscle pain, pneumonia before their rapid deaths.

Spanish Flu was, in many aspects, like a medieval plague and the common explanations for it were as unenlightened as were the Middle Ages. Some saw it as divine punishment for the man-made slaughter on the Western front of the war. Others pointed to circumstances such as food shortages on the home front, insanitary trenches and barracks on the military front. Or perhaps, it even was said, the Germans planted the germs themselves to win the stalemated war.

Hoping to ward off the disease, people wore camphor-ball sacks around their necks or ate sugar cubes soaked with turpentine or kerosene. Many wore face masks of gauze at the height of the epidemic on the advice of doctors, but the masks were so porous that one historian calls this effort "like trying to stop dust with chicken wire." Children began singing a ditty while playing as a mantra to ward off the sickness: "I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened the window/And in flew Enza."

At one point the deaths came so fast in the United States that coffins were being stolen, they were in such short supply. In September 12,000 Americans died but October, 1918, was the worst month: 195,000 died, 11,000 in Philadelphia alone.

On March 26, 1919, the government made the astonishing announcement that the epidemic had killed 583,135 persons in the United States. That's five times more than the 116,000 Americans killed in World War I - during approximately the same period. And yet these dead almost have been forgotten by history.

Could such a terrible thing happen again?

Because influenza probably is the last remaining human infection that can reach pandemic proportions, medical science is fearful that the answer is "yes". And unless the unknown Spanish Flu virus can be isolated so that its genetic structure can be identified and thereby a vaccine produced to fight it, the result of another visit could be much worse given the huge increase in world population.

Strange to say, the secret to this most lethal of viruses may have been found just this past summer in a remote Arctic island between Norway and Greenland.

As a source of unlocking this mystery, five years ago scientists began looking for Spanish Flu victims' bodies that may have been preserved in ice. They turned up a diary that was kept by a coal company doing mining on the island of Longyearbyen. In it was recorded the names of seven men 18 to 29 years old, farmers and fishermen who had just arrived on the island for winter jobs in the mine. Each of them contracted Spanish Flu on the boat trip from the Norway mainland and died in the first week of October, 1918. They were buried in the island's high Arctic climate. Radar located their bodies, encased six feet deep in permafrost, probably well preserved for medical study. Six of the families gave permission for exhumation.

Under the most stringent of conditions last August, the bodies were exposed so that samples of tissues from the victims' lungs, intestines and other organs could be taken. The bodies had not been embalmed; none were thawed or taken from the grave.

The samples now will undergo long and careful analysis in Norway, Canada, Great Britain and the United States by pathologists, virologists, molecular biologists and other scientists. From these tissues it is hoped that the genetic profile of the Spanish Flu virus can be constructed that will lead to finding its antidote.

May it prove to be so.

Meanwhile, yearly epidemics of lesser but still deadly flu strains continue to plague the nation. Influenza strikes tens of millions of Americans annually and kills about 20,000; pneumonia kills another 40,000. Vaccine is available, but lamentably few people opt to get an annual flu shot or the one-time pneumonia shot.

Understanding the horrors of the Spanish Flu may change a few of these intractable minds.

Published Dec. 22, 1998