November Column Winner

So, are we ready?

David Christy, Enid News & Eagle

It seems the latest on the 24-hour news cycle has yet more hand-wringing over our perceived lack of readiness to handle the latest disease epidemic — the Ebola crisis.
While it certainly isn’t a crisis here on these shores, it is very much cause for concern a world-wide pandemic is but one uncontrolled outbreak away from causing havoc in any country in the world.
Ebola has killed exactly one person in America, and everyone is in a lather.
Influenza kills about 36,000 Americans — at a minimum — every single year.
So, where is the lather?
Where is the instant sound bite and concern?
Mention Ebola and Americans quake. Say influenza, and you get a yawn and a rolling of the eyes. Ebola is difficult to contract. You can get influenza from a handshake or touching a door knob.
So, is any society — including the United States — ever really ready to handle a large epidemic or pandemic?
Certainly, the world wasn’t prepared for the Black
Death, when plague wiped out anywhere from a third to half of the population of Europe beginning in 1346 — by far the most devastating pandemic in recorded world history. But that was before America was, well ... America.
These shores have not been immune to disease outbreaks.
The first true outbreak was among Native Americans in New England, when European settlers brought smallpox and that terrible disease swept through the Northeast, wiping out entire tribes — almost 70 percent of Indians died.
In 1793, Philadelphia still was the nation’s Capitol and its busiest port, and yellow fever broke out, with the help of mosquitoes. Some 2,000 people died, despite many fleeing the city.
There was the Second Cholera Pandemic of the mid-1800s, killing an estimated 150,000 Americans. In modern times its been polio, Asian Flu and AIDS.
Still, in what would be considered modern times after the Industrial Revolution, the so-called Spanish Flu Pandemic here and around the world has no peer. A virus has mutated and caused global pandemics in the past. In 1890, a virulent strain of influenza struck here, killing many Americans. Those who survived that pandemic tended to be less susceptible to the disease when it re-appeared with a vengeance in 1918.
History tells us from bitter experience that very little good comes from any war.
And, the First World War not only killed people with shells and bullets, disease killed them by the millions.
No one is certain where the Spanish Flu started. It may have had its origins in China. Recent research has traced it back to a small town in Kansas, with the best recorded first case at Fort Riley.
The military post in east central Kansas was where new U.S. Army recruits were trained before being sent overseas to fight the Kaiser and Germany in World War I.
On March 11, 1918, Pvt. Albert Gitchell — a company cook — came down with what was thought to be a bad cold.
Within hours, other soldiers came down with the same symptoms and it spread like wildfire through the post. After just five weeks, 1,127 soldiers were stricken and 46 of them died.
Reports of influenza hitting other military camps around the country sprang up, and influenza made its way on troop ships headed for Europe, spreading the disease to French soldiers, then across Europe and much of the world.
Victims, most young and healthy, suffered greatly.
Within hours of the first symptoms of extreme fatigue followed fever, headache and victims would begin to turn blue — so pronounced that it was difficult for doctors to determine a patient’s true skin color.
Patients would cough with such force they sometimes tore stomach muscles, foamy blood would run from their noses and mouths. Some bled from the ears, vomited and became incontinent.
The disease struck so suddenly and severely — much like the Black Death of Europe had centuries before — people began wearing masks in public. Schools and theaters were closed, spitting and coughing in public were prohibited.
After the first wave of influenza came a second and then a third wave across America, which was spread by people taking to the streets on Armistice Day — Nov. 11, 1918 — kissing and hugging returning soldiers from Europe.
The disease lingered into1920, but as all influenza strains seem to do, it disappeared on its own, mutating to a lesser strain.
To this day, no one knows why this influenza virus mutated into such a deadly form, nor do they know how to prevent its return.
The 1918 flu affected 40 percent of the world’s population, killing as many as 50 million — 675,000
Americans.
It wasn’t the Black Death or Ebola — just a relatively minor inconvenience we pass off today as “the flu.”

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