Sunday 7 October 2012

France and 'Flu

When I'm doing talks I often get asked about the impact that the influenza outbreak of 1918 had on the nursing staff in France and Flanders. I've always felt that while soldiers were so badly affected the nurses got off pretty lightly, but thought I might try and put some proof into the supposition.

From the spring of 1917, the Matron-in-Chief's war diary contained a daily count of the nurses, both trained and untrained, who were sick in France, and accommodated in Sick Sisters' hospitals. It also gives a monthly summing-up of the total number of nursing staff employed in France and Flanders, both British and from the Dominions. So I took the highest daily figure for each month, and worked out the number of sick nurses as a percentage of the total monthly establishment.  There are some flaws in the process, as it doesn't take into account the women who were returned sick to the UK each day, but all these women must have been included in the daily figures at some time or another before their evacuation.  There are also one or two months where the figures are not clear enough in the diary to make an accurate calculation.  The results are interesting (even though a bit lightweight!) - there are expected increases during winter-time, but 1917 was worse than 1918 and early 1919, and the figures seem to support my initial thoughts that nurses were not affected by 'Spanish 'Flu' in France during 1918/1919 any more than they would have been in any other year.

April          5.10%
May           5.16%
June           4.53%
July            2.86%
August        2.91%
September  3.38%
October      3.68%
November   2.86%
December   3.39%

January       3.68%
February     3.15%
March         3.30%
April            2.66%
May            2.52%
June            2.56%
August        2.22%
September  2.18%
November  4.18%
December   3.63%

January       3.73%
February     3.85%
March         4.11%
April           3.43%

By the end of April 1919, although figures are still given in the diary, rapid demobilization makes accuracy difficult.  While the nursing staff were constantly exposed to infections while nursing large numbers of sick soldiers with influenza, it does seem that they may well have developed some natural immunity over many years of exposure during their hospital and community work.

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