Above photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
In October of 1918, British Columbia was in the midst of the worst influenza epidemic the world has ever seen.
Harry Peuch died on October 10, 1918 at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. Harry’s death made the newspapers at the time because he was the first person in Vancouver to die from the Spanish flu. By October 18 of that same year there were an estimated 900 cases and 32 deaths in the city. October 1918 was when Vancouver (and the rest of BC) was hit hardest by the epidemic.
Soldiers returning from World War I on trains from eastern Canada unwittingly helped spread the virus to BC where it thrived in logging camps and First Nations communities as well as towns and cities. The Spanish flu was a strain of H1N1 virus and is estimated to have killed 50 - 100 million people worldwide. The virus was deadly for otherwise healthy people with strong immune systems. Most of the deaths were among those aged 20 to 40 years. The virus worked so quickly that its victims could be seemingly healthy in the afternoon and dead by the next day. The respiratory distress was so sudden and severe that victims often suffocated in their own respiratory secretions.
Staff prepare a bed at Vancouver General Hospital, circa 1919. Image Courtesy of the Vancouver Archives.
Early 20th century physicians and scientists lacked the vaccines and technologies of today. Public health officials ordered people to stay indoors and not to shake hands or kiss. Schools, churches and other gathering places were closed to try to stop the spread. Masks were not readily available and hand hygiene was not as well understood or practiced as it is today.
An estimated 4,000 people died in BC from the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic—about a quarter of those in Vancouver. In today’s numbers that would be about 37,000 deaths for BC and 5,000 for Vancouver.
Vancouver Coastal Health has robust influenza management and infection control programs for both public and health professionals. Go to vch.ca/flu for more information.
Sources: BC Centre for Disease Control; Know BC; The Canadian Encyclopedia; Vancouver Sun.