Friday, 1 May 2009


It seems to be impossible to blink at present without someone, somewhere, mentioning 'Swine 'Flu', and that often leads on to talk of the pandemic of 1918, and the millions of deaths which followed. One recent report put forward the idea that it attacked fit young people because having a strong immune system actually puts you at more risk of complications and death - presumably on the 'stronger they come, the harder they fall' principle. I don't subscribe to this view myself, but it did get me looking at casualty figures for nurses during 1917 and 1918.

In relation to the nurses working with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, I have daily figures for the total number of nurses officially off work due to illness or injury for the entire period from March 1917 onwards. A War Office paper of the time suggests that a 'normal' sick rate for nursing staff on active service should fall somewhere between a low of 2% of establishment during quiet summer months, and a high of 5% during times of outbreaks of severe illness or epidemic. Although I have chosen not to spend too much time with my calculator for fear of insanity, the sick rate during the two years from March 1917 to March 1919 for all nurses working with the BEF in France and Flanders fits into the pattern exactly, from a low of 2.01% in July 1917 to a high of 4.18% in November 1918. Although the daily sickness rate for the winter of 1918 and spring of 1919 [when the influenza epidemic was at its height] are slightly increased from the same period the previous year, there seems to be no sign that the nursing staff were unduly affected by the epidemic in the same way as were the soldiers and the general population. Certainly there were some deaths, but again, in France and Flanders these formed a very small number relative to the size of the nursing establishment. Considering that the women were caring for thousands of men suffering from 'Spanish 'flu', giving the most personal care day and night and having the closest possible contact with them, it almost seems that most of them were invincible! During November 1918, out of a total nursing staff of 8,072, five women died from pneumonia or 'flu related illness, giving a death rate for the month of 0.06%, and in February 1919, the second worse month for deaths, the rate was 0.03%.

So why were the nurses so unaffected? All I can suggest is that the trained nurses among them [the majority] had spent many years nursing infectious cases in an age where there were no antibiotics, and had developed massive immunity from meeting other similar viruses in the past. If they had succumbed previously, most would either be dead, disabled or immune, and their presence in France suggests the latter - they had received immunity from meeting a variety of viruses previously which either prevented or ameliorated this latest illness. In view of today's problems it makes me grateful to have spent a lifetime as a nurse!

[The figures above are taken entirely from statistics for France and Flanders, and do not necessarily reflect a simliar situation in the UK at the same time]

1 comment:

  1. Great blog!

    There's another perspective on deaths from Spanish Flu...

    In relation to the York Minster memorial to all women who died in (or arising from) active service in WW1, it was claimed (maybe by Jim Strawbridge?) that of all deaths to nurses about one-third were from the Flu.