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Photos: Innovative Ways People Have Tried to Protect Themselves From the Flu

February 4, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

From elaborate contraptions to gargling to wearing signs, people in the first half of the 20th century tried a variety of strategies to avoid catching the flu.

Boys wear bags of camphor around their necks around the time of the 1918-19 Spanish flu—an “old-wives’ method of flue-prevention,” according to a December 1946 issue of Life magazine.

View the 9 images of this gallery on the original article

The worst influenza pandemic in history was the Spanish flu of 1918-1919. It infected an estimated 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population) and killed an estimated 50 million—more than the death toll for World War I. Even today, the seasonal flu outbreaks remain deadly. Between 291,000 and 646,000 people worldwide die from seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the first half of the 20th century, people used a variety of measures to try and protect themselves from the flu. One of these was camphor extracted from Cinnamomum camphora, or camphor trees. People might wear a bag of camphor around their necks to ward off the virus, while nurses and doctors might inject it into an infected patient’s arms and legs with a hypodermic needle. Today, camphor is one of the active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub—though the Food and Drug Administration regulates it in smaller and safer amounts.

Other early flu precautions involved gargling saltwater, wearing masks, eating oranges and—at least for one set of parents—warning people not to kiss their baby. These remain good ideas, but even for those who already practice healthy flu season habits, the CDC emphasizes that getting an annual vaccination is one of the best ways to prevent the flu.

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

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