Epidemics have terrorized America in the past; this isn't our first crisis

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Epidemics have terrorized America in the past; this isn't our first crisis



As the nation searches for answers to the current anthrax threat to American lives and livelihood, a new term, bioterrorism, has been born. And more than once over the past few weeks we have heard news broadcasters call it the first such crisis in our history.

Well, it's all a matter of how you look at it. Since we don't yet know the origin of the disease, we are into speculating. That same tactic was used during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Not only was it a deadly situation, it came near the conclusion of World War I, and first attacked members of the military in various parts of the country.

The term "bioterrorism" wasn't used during that time. Today, the networks and news media are intent on labeling or giving titles to every crisis. Yet, in 1918 there was speculation that foreign influence had a hand in bringing the deadly "Spanish influenza" to our shores.

By the time the flu reached America, the country was so content in achievements in microbiology over the previous century that the new strain of the virus baffled the medical community. Even smallpox and anthrax had been nearly obliterated by production of vaccines, but none yet existed for this strain of influenza.

Because America was at war with Germany, fingers were pointed in that direction when there were no other answers. One theory was that German U-boats had put influenza spores into the nation's harbors.

Another came from Lt. Col. Philip Doane, who was commander of the Health and Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corp. Doane said in Washington, D.C.: "It would be quite easy for one of these German agents to turn loose Spanish influenza germs in a theater or some other place where large numbers of persons are assembled. The Germans have started epidemics in Europe, and there is no reason why they should be particularly gentle with America."

That doesn't explain how the first known cases were at an Army camp in Fort Riley, Kansas. In March 1918, one private complained of fever, sore throat and headache, and by noon 100 others had followed him to the camp hospital with similar complaints. At the end of the week, there were 500 cases.

The flu reached its peak in the fall of 1918, just about the time the war ended (Nov. 11). By October there were 298,275 cases reported in the Army nationwide, with 16,174 deaths.

The Morgantown Post reported on Oct. 11, 1918, that Morgantown had 543 influenza cases, and 10 days later 504 new cases had been reported.

WVU closed on Oct. 5, church services were suspended, and theaters and public schools were closed. WVU canceled its 1918 football season, the only time this has ever occurred in the school's 110 years of football. "Terror gripped the public; physicians had no answers," a local historian declared.

The state of West Virginia didn't have a health department for the public until 1915. Before that, the agency was a mere licensing board for those who wanted to practice medicine. The new commission published a quarterly bulletin dealing with hygiene and general health conditions, which were among the first solutions to dealing with influenza. The commission also investigated epidemics and maintained quarantines. Under the new law, county health officers were named.

Women involved with the Red Cross during World War I also were credited with a major role in coping with the flu crisis. Charles H. Ambler wrote in his history of West Virginia that the nurses' "work during the influenza epidemic of 1917-18 approached the heroic."

The Legislature in 1919 passed laws to enlarge the scope of the state department of health and authorized county courts to employ full-time health officers.

During World War I, more than 60,000 West Virginians saw service; 1,812 lost their lives, and another 2,000 were wounded. Of the overseas fatalities, 571 were killed in action, 194 died of wounds and 356 died of diseases and other causes. That leaves 691 who died in the United States, many from influenza.

By the time the war ended in November 1918, Morgantown's flu epidemic was nearing an end, and schools reopened and churches resumed services.

By that time, the flu had spread across the nation, and during many parades at the war's end people wore masks. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue prescribed bed rest, good food, salts of quinine and aspirin for persons who were ill.

People around the country tried many different methods of dealing with the virus. Others groped for solutions, including the suggestion that people chew their food carefully and avoid tight clothes and shoes.

Some relied on folk remedies, including poultices of garlic-scented gum, and baths in raw onions.

Congress in October 1918 approved a special $1 million fund to recruit physicians and nurses to stem the growth of the epidemic. But with the war in progress, the recruitment of doctors was nearly impossible. On Oct. 19, Dr. C. Y. White of Philadelphia announced that he had developed a vaccine to prevent influenza, but whether it had a major part in relieving the flu's grip on the city was debated.

As most of us know, the World War I flu epidemic, which was probably the most widespread in the nation's history, wasn't the only time influenza gripped the nation. For instance, in January 1941, more than 5,000 Monongalia County residents had the flu, which once again reached epidemic proportions. Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a strain of Asian flu caused hundreds to be ill, and brought some fatalities.

Since that time, medical advancements have made strides in detecting various strains of influenza and dealing with most of them.

As for bioterrorism, we are dealing with it in the anthrax crisis, but we also know it isn't the first time the United States has been involved in such crises.

JOHN SAMSELL is a retired copy editor/special sections editor for The Dominion Post . His column appears Saturday. His e-mail address is: johnsamsell@hotmail.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 03, 2001

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