Extreme fatigue, high fever, coughing, severe headaches, a loss of smell and taste. We know all the symptoms, we have heard them all, however it is not the first time these symptoms manifest themselves during a pandemic.
Those afflicted endured fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles, and swollen eyes (conjunctivitis). Thanks to a ruined immune system, patients were vulnerable to pneumonia, which caused chills, chest pain, shortness of breath, vomiting and the risk of death as their infected lungs filled with fluid. Further deaths were attributed to bronchitis and other respiratory infections.
These are some striking similarities between this virus and its 19th century ancestor. You could be forgiven for thinking this is a description of the latest omicron strain of Covid-19. In fact, it details the severe wave of illness that swept the globe during pandemic of the 1890s. The so-called Russian flu, because the first reported outbreak occurred in St Petersburg in November 1889. But though some of the symptoms, such as fever, chills and aches, were consistent with flu, an increasing number of scientists believe the Russian flu may have actually been due to a bovine coronavirus.
Modern transport infrastructure assisted the spread of the 1889 pandemic. The 19 largest European countries, including the Russian Empire, had about 200,000 km of railroads, and transatlantic travel by sea took less than six days (not significantly different from current travel time by air, given the timescale of the global spread of a pandemic). It was the first pandemic to spread not just through a region such as Eurasia, but worldwide.
At a time when most medics subscribed to miasma (an oppressive or unpleasant atmosphere which surrounds or emanates from something) theory, the notion that diseases were the result of poisonous exhalations from the earth carried on the wind. There was little to no consideration given to social distancing or masks. Instead, doctors emphasised the importance of bed rest and a positive state of mind, lest fear become the “mother of infection”.
The Lancet medical journal even went as far as to blame “dread of the epidemic” on the worldwide telegraphic network which, in 1889, had enabled Reuters correspondents to transmit news of the pandemic from St Petersburg well ahead of domestic outbreaks. In a similar way how some media in 2020 were trying to blame the 5G network.
Unlike most influenza pandemics such as the 1918 flu, it was primarily older people who died in 1889, as was the case early on with Covid.
The 19yj century satirical magazine Punch wrote : “If you sit all day in your great coat, muffled up to the eyes in a woollen comforter and with your feet in constantly replenished mustard and hot water, as you propose, you will certainly be prepared, when it makes its appearance, to encounter the attack of the Russian Epidemic Influenza, that you so much dread.”
Despite this, there was wide agreement that the infection could cause lung inflammation and that it was imperative to avoid relapses.
Just like Covid, the Russian flu did not care about status.
Those who ignored this advice risked bronchitis and pneumonia. Indeed, one of the most prominent victims was the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s 28-year-old grandson and the second-in-line to the throne, who died of pneumonic complications from Russian flu in January 1892.
His death coincided with Rudyard Kipling’s marriage at All Souls Church, Marylebone – a ceremony, which Kipling recorded, took place “in the thick of an influenza epidemic, when the undertakers had run out of black horses and the dead had to be content with brown ones and the living were mostly abed”.
Aside from the Russian Flu vs Covid similarities, there was also a connection with the duke , who was the 2nd in line for the throne to 2021/2022. Prior to his death, Prince Albert Victor was involved in a sex scandal. As Prince Andrew, a former 2nd in line for the throne, is now.
A German medical report documented epidemiological observations. ‘Prodromal signs were indisposition, headache and shivering. The incubation time was given as 2–6 days. Susceptibility to the infection differed between individuals: strong and obese persons were more severely affected than weak and thin persons. The physicians observed that childless couples, singles and families without social contact were not affected.’
Deriving meaningful data about mortality rates from daily reporting in newspapers is challenging because the categories for reporting disease varied across cities, sources, and time periods. Comparing mortality tables in the Swiss newspaper Intelligenzblatt in early 1890 and a report published by British scientist F. A. Dixey in Epidemic Influenza: A Study in Comparative Statistics more than a year after the epidemic subsided reveals broadly similar patterns despite the differences in timing.
By contrast, the daily reporting of deaths in local newspapers provided much higher death rates during the influenza epidemic than these more comprehensive reports. On January 2, 1890, for example, a French newspaper La lanterne reported 450 burials on a single day, December 31, 1890. Less than a week later, the same newspaper reported 327 more burials, presumably of victims of influenza. On January 12, this newspaper reported the number of deaths had declined, to 353 on January 8 and 275 on January 9. Even with these declining numbers, the total numbers reported in the daily papers were higher than the international reporting shown in the table above.
Of course it is not entirely possible to conclusively say that the Russian Flu was in fact a precursor to Covid, but it is an intriguing bit of history.
The virus, however, led to a pandemic which resulted in a total of at least 1 million to 1.5 million deaths within a few months, according to Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst.
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