Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Terror of Influenza

As a lifelong student of history, I rarely read anything that surprises me anymore. An exception was John Barry’s book, The Great Influenza, written about the big outbreak in 1919. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages did in a century. It killed more people in a week than AIDS has in 30 years. The thing that boggled my mind was understanding the horrors of the plague. It’s horrible to know that the medical authorities of the day were so far behind those of the present day. While the author did not write a polemic, it did occur to me that for all the heinous things John Rockefeller did in his life, he did manage to found the Rockefeller Institute. That body did great short-notice work to help mitigate the death toll.

I learned that the killer strain of flu emerged at the exact time when it would do the most horrific damage: during a World War, when millions of soldiers were living in close proximity. The U.S. Army was undergoing unprecedented expansion in 1917,-1918; barracks became death traps. Of all U.S. Army bases, the worst-hit was Camp Sherman, just fifty miles south of Columbus. In Philadelphia, the police were the first line of defense. During the week of October 16, 1918, 4,597 Philadelphians died from influenza. Nineteen police officers died of the disease. It took extraordinary courage for medical personnel to remain on the job. As bad as the death toll was in Europe and the Americas, in non-Western countries, indigenous people who lacked immunity to Western diseases experienced an unimaginable death toll. I lived on Guam for five months. 1999-2000. On October 26, 1918, nearly 95 percent of the U.S. sailors ashore caught the disease, but only a single sailor died. The same virus killed ten percent of the native population. The same virus would later kill another five percent of the native population. In Nome, Alaska, 176 out of 300 Eskimos died.

The most haunting bit: In the Labrador town of Okack, there was a population of 266 people and a whole lot of dogs. When a relief mission reached the village, only 59 people were still alive. What made the town something out too scary for a Stephen King book was that the town’s canine population outnumbered that of people. The dogs, without people to care for them, ate what they could. The Reverend Andrew Asboe, though deathly ill, survived by keeping a rifle near his bed. He personally killed over a hundred dogs.

The possibility of a renewed outbreak of influenza that would be as deadly as the 1919 strain is a horrifying prospect, particularly if someone is diabolical enough to use weaponized biological agents. While reading Barry’s book, I wasn’t interested in a political polemic, but I will make one observation: Why was the 1918 strain so deadly? It’s because the influenza virus evolves.

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