My grandfather and the 1918 flu pandemic

This was written before COVID-19 was inflicted upon the world. I really thought that when the first viable COVID vaccine came out, we’d be rid of the anti-vax cult; I thought when they saw the death toll climbing, everyone would come to their senses. I never expected the anti-vax movement to actually grow in the face of a global pandemic. I suppose I really am a hopeless optimist.

Neil Alexander Lithgow Robson - cropped
Neil Alexander Lithgow Robson

One hundred years ago. October 27, 1918. My grandfather, Neil Alexander Lithgow Robson, became the latest statistic in the small town of Fenelon Falls, Ontario. He was 27 years old with a wife and three small children when the H1N1 virus, known as the “Spanish Flu,” swept across North America.

Over 20 million people died in that pandemic, including 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians. Roughly half the population of Fenelon Falls was wiped out in just a few weeks. It ravaged my family there as it was ravaging — and in some cases completely destroying — families around the world.

The flu did not and does not discriminate. It killed off young and old, infirm and healthy, weak and strong, man and woman, rich and poor. It didn’t care about race, religion, or political affiliation. It just killed.

But we moved forward. Scientific research led to vaccines that did a better and better job of protecting us not just from influenza, but a whole host of other diseases. There are always people afraid of the unknown, afraid of change, and so vaccines weren’t universally accepted. They were widespread enough to completely eliminate some diseases from the U.S. and dramatically reduce others.

Then, in February of 1998, a doctor named Andrew Wakefield, along with a dozen co-authors, published a paper in the Lancet, a highly-respected British medical journal, which made a connection between MMR vaccines and autism. People panicked and began withholding the vaccine from their children, and Wakefield went on a speaking tour.

When former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, she became the most prominent member of the anti-vax movement in the U.S. As vaccination rates plummeted, thousands of people came down with mumps and measles.

It later came out that Wakefield had been paid £435,643 (plus expenses) to fabricate his results by a lawyer suing a company that produced the vaccine. Ten of his co-authors issued a retraction. The Lancet retracted the paper and the editor-in-chief called the paper “utterly false.” Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. after the General Medical Council ruled that over 30 charges, including multiple counts of dishonesty and abuse of developmentally delayed children, had been proven.

Even though Wakefield was shown to be a fraud, he isn’t licensed to practice medicine in the U.S., and dozens of studies around the world involving hundreds of thousands of children (Wakefield’s paper involved 12 children) have found no connection between vaccines and autism, he continues his crusade. Jenny McCarthy and others like her support him.

And people die needlessly.

My grandfather would be appalled.

Robson headstone 2-Neil A L - Findlay - Wm Lithgow et al
I’ve walked through the graveyard in Fenelon Falls, looking at rows of headstones from people who died in that pandemic, and hoping that we as a society will get smart enough to prevent it from happening again.

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