Flu Vaccine Deaths in 1918?

The other day I read an interesting article on the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

One of the comments at the bottom pointed out that the author made no mention of the fact that US soldiers were dying of the flu vaccine before even being sent to Europe.

My first thought on reading that claim was that it was some nutty anti-vax bullshit. I tried Googling it, and several sites make similar claims, but that doesn’t mean much when it comes to this topic.

So, is there any truth to this? If so, why? Or if not, where did the rumour come from?

It seems unlikely, considering that flu vaccines weren’t developed until the 1930s as far as I know.

There was a “flu vaccine” developed for the Spanish-flu, but it was based on the incorrect assumption that the flu was caused by a particular bacteria. So it was ineffective at innoculating people, and probably didn’t help at all.

I don’t think it was implicated in killing anyone, though given the state of medicine in 1918, I guess that isn’t impossible.

Modern safe flu vaccines didn’t exist. But they had more risky early forms of vaccines. One thing they did was simply inject people with blood from earlier victims who had survived the flu.

According to this review article, the first flu vaccines were developed soon after the inluenza virus itself was isolated in 1933.

So far as I can tell the only “source” for this is pseudonymous comments on a news article. I’d assume “bullshit” until given a damn good reason to think otherwise.

Now, the comments on how it wasn’t influenza… Those have a little more meat to them. :V

Agreed. But if someone believes this story to be true, it can be helpful to know something about the claim being made in order to refute it, especially if it’s actually based on something (even if that “something” has been severely misunderstood) rather than just made up.

For example: Perhaps it’s true a lot of US soldiers were given some kind of treatment and some of those who received it died of some kind of disease. It may be that the treatment wasn’t a flu vaccination, or that there’s no correlation between recipients of said treatment and victims of the disease, or that the disease wasn’t flu. Making such a point would be a lot more convincing than “that’s probably bullshit because I haven’t heard of it”.

There absolutely was a vaccine developed and it was extremely successful. Check out The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry, an absolutely magnificent book that will scare the pants off you with the thought of this happening again.

The link goes to all pages that mention vaccine, so click on page 163, on the first development of the vaccine and its early trials and successes. The problem, actually problems, are shown on page 357. Making quantities of vaccines in the millions was thought to be impossible in those days. That was finally licked but not until the war was nearly over. And vaccines are preventive. All the soldiers who would need the vaccine were already gone from the bases that had been hit.

I find no evidence that the vaccines killed anybody at all. Some of the other attempts at a cure - as Barry says, doctors tried *everything *and quack doctors were quacks - might have killed people, but they were likely to die in any case.

You can ask why an effective vaccine wasn’t deployed worldwide. Probably because making 2 million doses is not the same as making 2 billion doses, the government was spending money on soldiers and not others, the vaccine was not effective against Type III bacteria, and doing worldwide health procedures in the aftermath of a war wasn’t feasible and likely simply not thought of.

Another untrue urban legend.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but reading those excerpts suggests that the vaccine being discussed wasn’t against the influenza virus itself, but against a pneumococcal bacteria that caused a secondary pneumonia in influenza patients.

Yes, they had no way of developing an anti-viral vaccine.

But on p 246 (not shown) and page 247 Barry writes:

Getting at the pneumonia was effectively a way of saving lives.

Without a doubt the pneumonia was often what the patients succumbed to. I just wanted to be very clear the difference between the vaccine for the flu virus itself vs a vaccine against the secondary bacterial pneumonia.

This is what is thought to have accounted for the Great Influenza’s high mortality rate among young healthy people - a “cytokine storm” resulting from vigorous immune system response that proved detrimental.

A similar mechanism is blamed for an unusually high proportion of serious illness and death among younger people during the recent H1N1 flu epidemic.

Think about that when you hear people boasting about how they don’t need flu shots and other precautions against influenza because of their “superior immune system”.

If there was a flu vaccine attempted in 1917-19 that wasn’t effective, or even caused some deaths on its own, anti-vaxxers using it as an excuse to refuse vaccines almost 100 years later is equivalent to Creationists trying to use the Piltdown hoax to discredit all human paleontology (which they do, and it makes them look even more ridiculous).

Just in case anyone doesn’t know, H1N1 and the flu of 1918 are very similar viruses. The body’s reaction to this strain is what makes it so dangerous, compared to other flu virus types.

Do you need yearly boosters for H1N1, or is one vaccination enough?

I do believe boosters are recommended, but I think the standard seasonal flu vaccines are now including H1N1 automatically.

The immune response that people generate after receiving the influenza vaccine declines with time. Indeed, annual revaccination (even with essentially the same combination of influenza viruses) revs the immune response back up and has been shown to reduce influenza mortality rates.

But, the virus mutates. So, although any given vaccine will provide some protection, people should also receive ‘boosters’, ideally with a vaccine that also contains the mutated virus. Figuring exactly how the virus mutates, and designing a vaccine that will protect against the new strain(s) is an area of research.