Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Pretty Sure the 1918 "Spanish" Flu Started at Ft. Riley Kansas

doctorsreview |  Camp Funston was situated within Fort Riley, Kansas, a military training facility housing 26,000 or so doughboys-to-be, the young men packed into barracks on 8100 cold and remote hectares. Soldiers dreaded the frigid winters and the gruelling hot summers as much as the severe dust storms in between. Still, their ultimate destination was far less pleasant; the Great War had been waging in the muddy trenches and foxholes of Europe for four long years. Right before spring, however, hell hit a little closer to home.

On Monday, March 11, 1918, mess cook Private Albert Gitchell awoke feeling achy and hot, his throat burning terribly. It would prove to be more than just your average case of the Mondays. Gitchell suited up and dragged himself down to the infirmary where the medic on duty realized this was no ploy to get out of serving up hard bread and bad coffee. With a fever over 103°F, Gitchell had chills as well as aches and pains just about everywhere.

As a precaution, Gitchell was ordered to the tent reserved for soldiers with potentially contagious conditions. But nothing could change the fact that Gitchell had been serving up meals to soldiers until the previous evening. A few hours after the cook was admitted, Corporal Lee Drake came in with almost identical symptoms. Then, Sergeant Adolph Hurby showed up. He too had frighteningly similar complaints. One by one, men with fevers of 104°F, blue faces and horrendous coughs made their way to the infirmary. By midday, Camp Funston had 107 cases of the flu, a total of 522 reported within the first week alone, and a staggering 1127 by the time April rolled around. In the end, 46 of those afflicted at Fort Riley died.

Though the situation was unusual, both the government and the military were distracted by the war effort. Officials called it a pneumonia outbreak and chalked it up to the strange combination of conditions in Fort Riley that week. Not only had the camp been shrouded in a vicious prairie dust storm, soldiers had been breathing in something even more noxious: putrid black ash created by tons of burning manure courtesy of the camp's thousands of horses and mules. In retrospect, the fact that countless swine and poultry were also living in close proximity to the soldiers may be a more likely place to lay blame since pigs can be susceptible to avian influenza viruses -- those strains responsible for most serious forms of flu -- which can then mutate and be transmitted to humans.

As Camp Funston neared recovery from the outbreak, crowds of coughing American soldiers, many barely over this mysterious flu, were shipped off to Europe to live in even more cramped quarters. And, unfortunately, they brought the Spanish flu with them, spreading it first to France, England, Germany and then Spain. It followed not only the movements of the troops, but also travelled rapidly along shipping and trade routes throughout the world. By the end of the pandemic, only one major region on the entire planet had not reported an outbreak: an isolated island called Marajo, located in Brazil's Amazon River delta.

In September 1918, a second wave of the epidemic hit North America and this time it could not be ignored. It had mutated since its Fort Riley appearance and was now deadlier than ever. First, soldiers began dying at military bases around Boston, whose bustling port was working hard to manage all the much-needed war shipments. New shipments of soldiers brought the mutated form of the virus back to Europe, where more soldiers on both sides were felled by the flu than by enemy fire. It's no wonder. Crowded and unsanitary living conditions, damp trenches, and weakened immune systems proved the perfect breeding ground for the killer flu. At home, things were just as bad for civilians. By October, the domestic death toll reached staggering heights: some 200,000 Americans died in that month alone, with millions more infected. With the end of the war in November came a third wave of disease for the US and Canada as victory parades and massive parties spread yet another round of the fearsome flu.