PHILADELPHIA (AP) – On September 28, 1918, in the coming days of World War I, over 200,000 people gathered on Broad Street in Philadelphia for a parade that wanted to raise funds for the military effort. Among the patriotic crowds that encouraged troops and floats was an invisible threat that would be more dangerous to soldiers and civilians than any foreign enemy: the flu virus.
Officials continued the parade despite discouragement from the city's health department about the ever-spreading virus. Within 72 hours of the parade, all hospital beds in Philadelphia were full of flu. Within six weeks, more than 12,000 people died – death every five minutes – and 20,000 died within six months.
Despite the human toll, there is no memory or public memory of flu victims in the city.
The Museum of Mutters, known for its collection of organs preserved in jars, deformed skeletons and wax castings of medical diseases, has launched a new permanent exhibit of the 1
"Spit Spreads Death" will open on October 17 and will include interactive maps that map pandemics, artifacts, images and personal stories.
"Still some historians call the forgotten pandemic because how many Americans are aware of it today," says Robert Hicks, director of the museum.
The exhibit bears the name of health department signs that popped up around the city as the pandemic spread.
Prior to the start of the exhibit, the museum will present a parade on Saturday at the same time a section of the road where the ill-fated Liberty Loan Parade was held. As a moving memorial, the parade will feature around 500 members of the public honoring the victims of the pandemic, four glowing floats and an original piece of music by the Grammy-winning choir "Crossing."
"Said Matt Adams, co-founder of Blast Theory, the group of artists creating the parade. Anyone can register to participate and can choose the name of an actual flu victim to honor while marching. Participants will be given a sign with the name of their chosen person and will move along a parade route surrounded by illuminated sculptures. Members of the city's public health community were urged to join it.
"All this is in the process of remembering what the risks to public health are, because it is a crucial way to stay safe today," he said.
More American soldiers died from the flu than from battles in Europe during the war. At the time, it was called Spanish flu because Spain was neutral during the conflict and had no restrictions on the press and could therefore freely report the outbreak, said Nancy Hill, special projects manager at the museum. The general public in much of the United States has been unaware of the virus because of news breaks and any speech deemed unpatriotic. Speaking of soldiers dying from the flu, they fell into this category.
About 500 million people, or one-third of the world's population, have contracted the virus. About 20-50 million have died worldwide, with about 675,000 related to influenza in the United States. Troops moving around the world in crowded ships and trains helped the deadly virus to spread as the war progressed.
The exhibit itself will include interactive materials that allow people to explore their own neighborhoods to see how the flu has hit their streets and even their own homes.
Among the most touching artifacts is a selection of Christmas gifts that a woman named Naomi Whitehead Alice Ford bought for friends and family, all provided with handwritten personal notes to intended recipients. But they were never given away because she died from the flu on October 21st.
Hicks hopes visitors will take away the sense of the scope of the pandemic and see the city come together to help themselves and be vigilant – getting vaccines, taking health care and information. The museum even threw a health fair in the south quarter of Philadelphia, offering everything from flu shots to training in Narcan.
"It's too easy to forget in the United States," Hicks said. "Cholera, typhoid, typhoid fever all mean nothing to most Americans today, but President Lincoln's son was killed by typhoid fever. From tall and powerful to those whose names are not remembered, these diseases were commonplace. The fact that measles coming back is a great reminder: These diseases don't go away. "
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