A tale of two flus

How do the Spanish and COVID-19 viruses compare?

Mary Kemper
Staff Writer

  Most people know about the Spanish flu of 1918.

  Back then, World War I was coming to an end. By 1920, almost as many soldiers on all sides died of the flu and other diseases as were killed in combat.

  No one knew exactly where the virus originated — but it was a massive pandemic nearly on the scale of the Black Plague in medieval times.

  Estimates put the worldwide death toll, soldiers and civilians alike, between 25 and 50 million.

  It struck young and old alike, but strangely, healthy young teens and adults were a big slice of those who died.

  Here in the U.S., “ground zero” was attributed to an Army camp in Haskell, Kan., but by the time this was decided, at least 14 other camps were reporting cases.

  Why was this illness so deadly? Why did this virus, today’s COVID-19, and others like it spread so quickly? Should we panic?

The ‘art’ of mutation

  Today’s COVID-19 is the same as the Spanish flu of 1918 — that is, they are variations of the H1N1 virus that gave us the SARS and swine flu in the early 2000s.

  All originated in China.

  Many are thought to have migrated from animals to humans. Poultry and pigs, specifically.

  All viruses seek a host, and the easier to inhabit, the better. No need to change. That is what happened with the Spanish flu. The hosts — pretty much everyone — had no immunity (except the Chinese, among whom it first originated), so it ran riot.

  The reason it killed so many young and healthy people was because being young and healthy, they produced an abundance of enzymes, not found in children or the elderly, that essentially burned their immune systems out at a time when they were under attack, leaving them vulnerable to death.

  Eventually, by the end of 1920, the Spanish flu dissipated and died out.

  COVID-19, on the other hand, has learned to mutate to survive.

  We have seen this in all other H1N1 viruses like SARS and the swine flu — this time, the virus is mutating even as we speak. It is a survival mechanism par excellence.

The old days, versus today

  Most flu viruses have similar symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control recommend only contacting health professionals if breathing becomes very labored, or if a temperature climbs above 103.

  We have a stellar health care system that has built upon decades of knowledge.

  Back during the Spanish flu, there was no knowledge of the behavior of the virus — no basic hygiene — no attempt to quarantine, even though diseases like the measles or scarlet fever resulted in instant quarantine.

  And no vaccines.

  As this goes to press, the U.S. health care agencies are bypassing tests on animals and going straight to human testing in order to find a vaccine. The same is happening throughout the world.

  Can COVID-19 kill as many people as the Spanish flu did? Anything is possible, but this one is not likely.

  For one thing, not everyone dies, nor even has bad symptoms. Most are recovering.

  A vaccine is coming. This flu will be beaten.

  In the meantime, pay attention to the advice: Wash your hands after every trip out of your house, and even in it. Avoid unnecessary trips, until the virus has run its course (projected to be around June).

  There will not be the tens of millions of deaths that the Spanish flu saw. But only if we take care.S

Remembering Korea – West Palm VA Physician Reflects On Early Years

Photo courtesy of the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center
Dr. Kuang S. Kim is an anesthesiologist at the Wes Palm Beach VA Medical Center. In 1950 he was a medical student months from graduation leading a campus anti-communist group. In June, he’d become a second-time refugee running from the communists. He joined the South Korean Army and worked alongside American doctors during the Korean War.


On June 26, 1950, Dr. Kuang S. Kim was a medical student in Seoul, Korea, two months away from graduating. At the school, Kim headed up a student anti-communist organization.

“In 1945, the country was divided and my family had to move down south, because of the communists,” Kim said.

The next three years, one month and a day in Korea would be recorded in innumerable books and documentaries, but somehow they’d remain the Forgotten War.  This July 27 marks 64 years since the armistice that ended the shooting. No respected historian argues it ended the war. Korea today remains a glaciated remnant of the Cold War.

June 26, 1950

“I see a lot of people, millions of people, coming down the street,” Kim said. “They said North Korea invaded and they were running away from the communists.”

On June 25, 1950, about 135,000 soldiers in the North Korean People’s Army lunged southward over the famed 38th Parallel border in an overwhelming blitz. By June 28, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea military was in Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

There had, of course, been a lot of backstory that included the Soviet Union and newly-minted communist People’s Republic of China wishing for a united, communist Korean Peninsula leading up the June 25 invasion. Many historians believe the North Korean despot Kim Il-sung rushed ahead of his communist allies to their chagrin.

The United Nations Security County met that June day and issued Resolution 82 condemning the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s attack on the Republic of Korea. Two days later it passed Resolution 83 recommending that United Nations’ member states aid South Korea. On July 5, the U.S. military engaged the North Koreans. The 24th Infantry Division’s Task Force Smith deployed from Japan and met the enemy near Osan.

The next three years were the Korean War. But, before the Americans arrived, South Korea was in chaos.

“I don’t know how many times I thought I was going to die — gunshots all over the place,” Kim said.

Gunshots mixed in with exploding military vehicles and a lot of uncertainty.

“We didn’t have cell phones, so we didn’t know what was going on,” Kim said.

He was certain of one thing, however. He’d better get as far away from the North Korean military as possible.

“I thought, I cannot be around here, because I’m known for being anti-communist,” Kim explained.

Kim had too much company in that fear. There was a crush of people trying to cross the Han River when he got to the Hangang Bridge.

“A lot of people got killed,” Kim said. “If you fall down, you’re going to be dead.”

He’d witness one of the saddest moments in the Korean War. A South Korean decided to blow up the bridge in a desperate attempt to stop the North Korean advance. Kim — who couldn’t swim — and others hiked about 10 miles to a place to cross.

Kim eventually found an uncle who was a town’s chief of police.

“He told me, ‘You’re a (medical doctor), why don’t you look for the military hospital,’” which Kim did.

That was the day Kim effectively joined the South Korean military and spent the next couple years working alongside American doctors in the famed mobile army surgical hospitals, or MASH. As the U.S. was winding down its role in Korea, it was transferring facilities to the South Koreans, including a hospital that needed an anesthesiology department.

Kim traveled to the United States to study anesthesiology in Arizona then Massachusetts. He got a letter telling him he’d been discharged from the South Korean military.

“I was really surprised,” Kim said. “Discharged? I didn’t know what that meant.”

He made phone calls to find out what was going on and kept running into dead ends. Kim decided to remain in the U.S. He married, had five children and worked in Milwaukee. When Kim retired, he moved to South Florida.


Kim had been retired a few years. One day, he took a friend to the West Palm Beach Department of Veterans Affairs’ Medical Center. A doctor at the facility told Kim they were short in anesthesiology. Kim applied to work there, mostly to help out for a bit until the medical center could get needed doctors.

“I didn’t think I’d stay at this hospital for more than a few months,” he said. “A few months turned into a few years.”

Today Kim meets and talks with surgical patients before operations. He also mentors at the hospital. He just turned 90.

“If I’d known I could work at a VA like this, I’d have done it years ago,” Kim said.