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Front Page » November 8, 2005 » Local News » History confirms new flu's potential to impact life at lo...
Published 3,239 days ago

History confirms new flu's potential to impact life at local, national levels


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate general manager


Long lines gather around the local health department last year when flu vaccine was in short supply. No vaccine has yet been developed for bird flu. With the unpredictability of the disease and the way pandemics materilize as well as trave, what could happen with future treatments remains unsure. The 1918 Spanish flu killed many Carbon County residents and distrupted business, government and social organizations across the country.

For most Carbon County residents, the flu is something people get. They are sick for a few days and then they are back to normal.

Americans are used to the seasonal malady and take it in stride. Some people get shots, while others refuse because they think the reaction to the vaccine is worse than the flu.

But as world events unfold, a new flu that is possibly on the horizon could pose problems much worse than missing a few days of school or work.

The so-called 'bird flu' could disrupt the world economy and the American way of life as it is known. It could also devastate some populations within the United States - a country where the health care system finds few equals in the world.

Not long after a call by President George Bush for huge appropriations to work on vaccines and drugs to help with any potential outbreak, Gov. John Huntsman announced last week that plans to combat such an outbreak in Utah were being put together.

While the bird flu has not yet evolved to the point where it appears the disease is being passed from human to human, many scientists believe it is just a matter of time.

Parts of the plan are based on a past experience few local residents can remember, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. History tells the tale and health statistics show that a disease, which made its way around the world in a few months due to passage on ships and boats, could now proceed much faster because of rapid air travel.

Estimates show that between 30 and 50 million people died of the disease worldwide in 1918, with more than one-half million fatalities recorded in the United States. More soldiers were lost by death to the flu than were killed on the field of battle in Europe where World War I was raging. Estimates showed that between 35 percent to 45 percent of all American servicemen got the flu and that over 43,000 died from it.

Utah lost a few thousand residents throughout the waves of the disease. While called the flu of 1918, it actually came back several times and infected people through 1920, according to the World Health Organization.

A U.S. Center for Disease Control report that came out in June indicated that the potential deaths in Utah could go into the 3,500 range with hospitalizations for a future flu pandemic at around 16,000.

The CDC report also indicated that the number of cases in the state could exceed 500,000. That means between about one -fourth of Utah's population would get the bug.

The official beginning of the Spanish flu appears to have started in Fort Riley, Kan., when in March of 1918 when an Army private reported to the camp hospital with a sore throat, a fever and headache.

By mid-day, the U.S. Army hospital had 100 patients and, by the end of the week, 500 patients were sick. It spread through the military rapidly with one of the worst outbreaks taking place at Camp Devens, Mass. where 63 men ultimately died from the disease.

Locally, Carbon County was hit hard by the Spanish Flu. While some of rural Utah escaped relatively unharmed, Carbon with it's iron rails traveling from all points east and west, was a prime candidate for the passage of the bug.

By September, a disease many physicians felt would soon die down, had spread across the country and reports began to appear in Carbon counties local papers (The Sun, The News Advocate and the Carbon County News) concerning the news from other parts of the country. However, it wasn't until October that locals began to take the pandemic seriously.

In the Oct. 10, 1918 issue of the News Advocate an article appeared on the front page of the paper saying that Price was to become a closed town due to the flu. What that meant at the time was that all public gatherings were to be curtailed.

"Twelve cases of the Spanish influenza in six families with two deaths is the reason for the order," stated the piece. "Schools, churches, lodges, social gatherings, pool halls, the moving pictures and all places where crowds congregate will be closed."

The two deaths related to the flu concerned a traveling salesman and a baker, Mike Androulakis at the Greek bakery in town.

The city physician in the town at the time was Dr. C.A. Wherry who said that he thought the closures would mitigate the situation as long as people, particularly children who were now out of school, also did not gather in their homes too much.

Another article in The Sun on Oct. 25, 1918 brought up the national problem but did little to address the local situation. In fact, despite deaths in the community from the disease, the war still was the front page news while many pieces about the flu were pushed to the back of the paper.

"It (the Spanish Flu) has not only become a great and terrifying menace to the public health, but unless checked it is apt to seriously affect the progress of the war work in all its various departments," stated the piece, showing that the people were still more concerned about a war which was nearing its end than they were about a seemingly distant threat at home. "Already the shipping board announced that 10 percent of its workers have been affected."

The fact is that the national economy was already under attack by the illness, because in many cities and towns schools and churches, and other public gatherings had been forbidden. People were being thrown out of work whether they had the flu or not.

The early reports about the flu in Carbon County concentrated on prevention with The Sun, in particular, taking up the cause of a drug called Tanlac which was supposed to build up the constitution of a person. In fact some of the articles in the papers almost turned into an advertisement for Tanlac, even going so far as to listing who sold it in the immediate area.

On Nov. 7 the News Advocate reported that 38 people had died of the flu (or related causes) since Oct. 6, with 16 dying in the week before the paper was published. Some of those listed as dying included Lawrence Rossi, Hattie Burch, Baptiste Tharour, Gracian Tristan, Cfarina Zoba, Mary Morrison, Auastaso Lavoca, Albert Merrill and Mrs. John Nash.

Price wasn't the only town in the county with closed facilities; it may be hard to imagine but a number of the coal camps actually closed the boundaries of their town from the outside. In that same issue of the News Advocate it was reported that Scofield had closed its boundaries.

"Scofield became alarmed at the spread of the flu last Friday and Dr. Pomeroy and the health board closed up the town ordering new comers be quarantined three days before mingling with the people and that no one be admitted inside the town limits unless he was will to abide by that rule," said the article. In addition all flu patients were being quarantined for a week and then they had to agree to wear a mask for a week after their release.

By Nov. 21 the flu had gotten so bad that all Thanksgiving services, including some large family gatherings were cut out.

"There will be no schools, no shows, no gathering of crowds (theoretically) and nothing but men and boys gathering in bunches with no attention to the "keep five feet apart" order," said a piece in the New Advocate on the front page titled "Flu worse in county."

The article reported new cases as well as a number of deaths particularly in some of the far flung coal camps. According to the article Scofield was being particularly hard hit despite the closing of its borders to outsiders.

On Nov. 22 a proclamation was issued according to The Sun that tightened things up even more. Dr Wherry, along with the marshal, Orsen A. Larsen said they had found five cases of the flu that had not been reported to officials. At that point they imposed some emergency regulations to prevent the spread of the disease. Those regulations included that physicians must report cases to the Wherry or the marshal on a daily basis by phone. Failure to do so was reportable to the health department.

Next citizens were informed that "all acute sickness with symptoms of fever and cough must be seen by a doctor for diagnosis" with cases not reported being "quarantined for 10 days when found by the marshal." The proclamation even asked neighbors to report to authorities if they saw someone in their neighborhood that had the sickness and that may have not been reported. The 10 day quarantine rule would also affect everyone living in the house where the sick person was located.

Finally, quarantines were to take place from the first date of the last case reported in a home. People found on the street who were still under quarantine orders were to be prosecuted.

"The health department does not wish to place any undue hardship on anyone, but these regulations must be lived up to our more drastic measures will be used," stated the article.

For the next month the flu came and went in many homes, some leaving behind death, other times other health problems. Years later it was discovered by national researchers that the Spanish Flu had and effect on many who got it by weakening their hearts. Studies also showed up that measured a fall in fertility and other side affects as well.

By mid-December, 1918 the flu was apparently subsiding in the county. On Dec. 8, the News Advocate ran an article in which it was reported that only about 20 houses in the county still had quarantine signs on them and that it appeared that the ban on many of the public gatherings would soon be lifted.

On Dec. 15 it was reported in the News Advcoate that one flu patient, Joe Media, was fined $10 for violating his quarantine because he went to the barber for a shave while still under the order.

While the state had started to let up on restrictions, most of the public gatherings, such as in the Price Tabernacle, the Methodist Church and others were still not being held for fear of a resurgence of the disease.

By Christmas the state had lifted the heaviest of the regulations, but still wanted people to report flu cases and to invoke quarantines where needed. However, the ban on public gatherings was eased and schools planned to open on Dec. 30 after being out of session in Carbon County for 11 weeks.

"Our schools have been torn by the influenza epidemic and by the ravages of a war," said superintendent of schools Orson Ryan in a letter that was published in The Sun on Dec. 27. He urged everyone to come back to school on Dec. 30 saying, "I am sure there is not a teacher in Carbon County who will not return strong and full of wholesome enthusiasm."

It had been a bittersweet fall for the people of Carbon County. World War I had ended in the middle of the epidemic, so people were feeling good about that. But the victory celebrations brought a spread of the disease that killed dozens of people later in the month and into December around the state.

While no definite statistic exists, it appears between 50 and 70 people died in the county of the disease or by having other conditions exacerbated by it in the later part of 1918. Many people who died were struck down in their prime.

How that experience relates to what could happen in the future is hard to tell. Antibiotics, advances in medicine and in particular advances in communication and information could change how things are handled completely.

What could happen remains to be seen should a pandemic rage across the face of North America.


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