Glanmore catches flu exhibition

Melissa Wakeling of Glanmore National Historic Site holds a display compiling Intelligencer reports on the influenza pandemic of 1918. She wears a replica of the ineffective cotton masks used during the era in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading. Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer

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Flu season is arriving in Belleville a little early – but luckily only in the form of a museum exhibition.

The travelling exhibition “Unmasking Influenza” opens Thursday, Aug. 8 with a free evening reception at Glanmore National Historic Site.

It tells the story of the world’s deadliest influenza pandemic – dubbed the “Spanish” flu — which killed 50 million people worldwide in the years after the First World War. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe it as the most severe pandemic in recent history.

And while it may seem like century-old news, the form of the flu virus at the heart of the crisis was known as H1N1 – the same form of influenza seen in recent years, including the last flu season in Ontario.

The first cases were detected at the U.S. Army’s Camp Funston in Kansas, though it was nicknamed the “Spanish” flu after early media reports surfaced there.

The pandemic hit here in the fall of 1918, shortly before the war ended. A second wave came in the spring of 1919, with a third in 1920. Soldiers returning from the war became infected and, as they travelled across Canada by train, wound up spreading the virus.

“We estimate that 350 people died in Hastings County from the Spanish flu,” said Melissa Wakeling, Glanmore’s education and marketing coordinator.

“This number may actually be much higher due to deaths caused by secondary infections.”

“As they were recovering they would get pneumonia or some other illness and they would die from a secondary infection,” Wakeling said.

More than 50,000 Canadians died of the flu, she said, but the number of related deaths is harder to determine. The 1918 national population totalled about 8.1 million.

There was no effective vaccine available and no antibiotics available to treat secondary infections. People scrambled to prevent the spread of the virus.

“There was no church. Schools were closed. Public gatherings were discouraged,” Wakeling said.

Services were affected as more workers became too sick to work or died. At one point, the Canadian National Railway cancelled a route between Yarker, Bannockburn and the Belleville area.

The museum exhibition includes updates from The Intelligencer, then called The Daily Intelligencer, though its staff were among those affected.

At Belleville General Hospital, Wakeling continued, “Two nurses died from pneumonia.”

“There were no telephone operators left to operate the switchboards so they started to ask for volunteers, specifically children, to run messages.” Women and children were also recruited as nurses.

Visitors to Glanmore will also see photos, a bed from the era and examples of some of the purported remedies used – though Wakeling said some were not “medically sound.”

“People were desperate.”

Today’s medical experts know much more about the flu – and how to prevent and treat infections in general – than those faced with the pandemic.

Pandemics do, however, still occur. A strain of H1N1 flu was responsible for a 2009 pandemic, though on a smaller scale.

Wakeling said the post-war experience comes with a lesson about the importance of infection control.

“In these days of easy international travel it’s critical.”

The exhibition is a presentation of Ingenium, the body overseeing the federal agriculture, aerospace and science and technology museums. It will remain at Glanmore until Oct. 6.

Visitors can see it for free during the Aug. 8 opening reception from 7-8 p.m. Regular admission will apply on other days.

For more information on the exhibition and on Glanmore, call 613-962-2329 or visit The museum is at 257 Bridge Street East at Dufferin Avenue.