Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Real Pandemic Panics Look Like

The Ebola panic in the United States is pathetic in large part because there are many more deadly infectious diseases in this country. Real pandemic panics are much different.

Yellow Fever Epidemic - 1878
Yellow Fever outbreaks occurred periodically throughout the 19th century in cities like New York, Boston, and New Orleans. The 1978 fever probably arrived in New Orleans with war refugees from Cuba. As it spread along the Mississippi Valley, Memphis tried to protect itself by banning travelers from the south entering the town. That didn't stop it. As deaths in Memphis started, the white population (some 25,000 people) of the city evacuated leaving behind less than 20,000 mostly poor or black people behind. The evacuees were frequently turned away by other towns by armed men and barricades. The death rate in Memphis reached 200 per day. The fever burned through the Mississippi Valley for three months killing 20,000 people. Over 5,000 died in Memphis alone.

There is an effective vaccine for Yellow Fever yet is is still endemic in tropical Africa and South America and kills 30,000 people annually world wide.

Spanish Flu Pandemic - 1918
In raw numbers, the deadliest pandemic in human history. In three years, the Spanish Flu killed as many people as died during the six years of  World War Two.

The current best guess is this strain of flu began on a pig farm in Kansas, spread to the Fort Riley army base in March, 1918 where 100 men reported sick the first day. It killed 48 men in Fort Riley is just two weeks. Soldiers carried the disease to East Coast ports and across the ocean into Europe. From there it spread across the globe. Wartime censorship compounded the disease. It was called "Spanish" flu because Spain was not involved in WWI and its appearance in Spain was the first time the pandemic was reported in the public press.

In the second half of 1918, this disease exploded across the world. The death rates were horrifying. One one day (Oct. 10, 1918) in one city (Philadelphia) 759 were killed by the virus. People would become sick and be abandoned to die by their own family. Entire families would get sick and starve in their homes as friends were afraid to help them. Police would enter the homes later to clear out the dead bodies. In Philly that year, priests would actually bring horse drawn carts through neighborhoods calling for people to "bring out your dead."

Over a half million died in the United States in September and October, 1918. Twenty percent of the population of Samoa died in two months. Seventeen million died in India. Entire Alaskan villages were wiped out by the disease. Globally, 25 million people died in just 25 weeks and an estimated 80 million people died during the two year run of the pandemic. To this day, saying the words "swine" and "flu" in the same sentence will send government officials into a panic.

Flu vaccines are developed annually. The flu still kills 30,000 people a year in the United States alone.

Polio - 1952
In 1952, a polio epidemic saw 57,000 cases leading to 3,145 deaths. Many others suffered paralysis, occasionally requiring encasement in iron lungs just to breath. The fear of polio was wide spread because it mostly infected children. Public swimming pools were closed and sporting events were cancelled. Parents were warned to not let their children play with strange children, get tired or cold. Every time a child came down with a sore throat or fever parents were terrified it was polio.

First Jonas Salk then Albert Sabin developed polio vaccines. I remember getting both because my parents wanted to be doubly sure I didn't get polio. Polio has been eradicated in most of the world, the last US case was in 1979. There were only 416 cases globally in 2013, mostly in Somalia and Pakistan.

No comments: