The Fear of the Known
Publishing the genetic sequence of a transmissible influenza virus might be scary, but harder decisions are yet to come
Spring, 1918: The war, thought to be “the war to end all wars,” had dragged on pointlessly for close to four years. The United States had only entered this conflict a year earlier, its isolationism finally overcome. By the spring of 1918, some 1.5 million U.S. servicemen had been shipped to the European theater. This number would grow to more than 4 million by war’s end. Many of these soldiers found themselves involved in trench warfare, where ground was gained, lost and regained. More than 50,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors eventually died in battle.
At about the same time, a second front, both subtle and no less deadly, was opening up far from Europe. On the morning of March 11, 1918, Albert Gitchell, a cook at Camp Funston, showed up at the camp’s infirmary complaining of a bad cold. By the end of that week, soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, where Camp Funston was located, were falling ill at an unusually high rate. The first deceptively simple report of what was to become one of the greatest human pandemics appeared in one sentence in the weekly journal Public Health Reports: “On March 30, 1918, the occurrence of eighteen cases of influenza of severe type, from which three deaths resulted, was reported at Haskell, Kans.” This was, for the moment, a highly contagious—but not highly lethal—strain of influenza. Most of the people afflicted by the first wave of infection would recover. But these same infected soldiers were being shipped to the European front at a rate of 10,000 a month, carrying influenza to a continent devastated by war. Placed in close quarters under unsanitary and stressful conditions, American soldiers were transporting an already potentially dangerous virus into virgin territory. Sometime between late spring and early summer of 1918, the virus evolved: It now easily infected young men and women, a cohort comparatively spared from infectious diseases. Afflicted individuals reported violent symptoms from the outset. Soon, their fevers spiked, their breathing became labored, their headaches shattering. Hours—or at most a day—later, many patients would die, drowning in their own secretions, gasping for breath.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 eventually claimed 57,000 American soldiers—more than died in the war itself. The movement of soldiers and civilians from infected areas disseminated this more lethal form of the influenza virus back to the United States and around the world. By the time the worldwide influenza pandemic flickered out in 1919, more than 50 million deaths could be blamed on it. Out of a world population of approximately 1.85 billion, an astonishing 25 percent may have been infected during the outbreak.
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