Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘“Spanish flu”

How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America

The toll of history’s worst epidemic surpasses all the military deaths in World War I and World War II combined. And it may have begun in the United States

Camp Funston
An emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918. “Of the 12 men who slept in my squad room, 7 were ill at one time,” a soldier recalled. (New Contributed Photographs Collection / otis historical Archives / National Museum of Health and Medicine)
Smithsonian Magazine

Haskell County, Kansas, lies in the southwest corner of the state, near Oklahoma and Colorado.

In 1918 sod houses were still common, barely distinguishable from the treeless, dry prairie they were dug out of. It had been cattle country—a now bankrupt ranch once handled 30,000 head—but Haskell farmers also raised hogs, which is one possible clue to the origin of the crisis that would terrorize the world that year. Another clue is that the county sits on a major migratory flyway for 17 bird species, including sand hill cranes and mallards.

Scientists today understand that bird influenza viruses, like human influenza viruses, can also infect hogs, and when a bird virus and a human virus infect the same pig cell, their different genes can be shuffled and exchanged like playing cards, resulting in a new, perhaps especially lethal, virus.

We cannot say for certain that that happened in 1918 in Haskell County, but we do know that an influenza outbreak struck in January, an outbreak so severe that, although influenza was not then a “reportable” disease, a local physician named Loring Miner—a large and imposing man, gruff, a player in local politics, who became a doctor before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease but whose intellectual curiosity had kept him abreast of scientific developments—went to the trouble of alerting the U.S. Public Health Service.

The report itself no longer exists, but it stands as the first recorded notice anywhere in the world of unusual influenza activity that year.

The local newspaper, the Santa Fe Monitor, confirms that something odd was happening around that time: “Mrs. Eva Van Alstine is sick with pneumonia…Ralph Lindeman is still quite sick…Homer Moody has been reported quite sick…Pete Hesser’s three children have pneumonia …Mrs J.S. Cox is very weak yet…Ralph Mc-Connell has been quite sick this week…Mertin, the young son of Ernest Elliot, is sick with pneumonia,…Most everybody over the country is having lagrippe or pneumonia.”

Several Haskell men who had been exposed to influenza went to Camp Funston, in central Kansas. Days later, on March 4, the first soldier known to have influenza reported ill. The huge Army base was training men for combat in World War I, and within two weeks 1,100 soldiers were admitted to the hospital, with thousands more sick in barracks.

Thirty-eight died. Then, infected soldiers likely carried influenza from Funston to other Army camps in the States—24 of 36 large camps had outbreaks—sickening tens of thousands, before carrying the disease overseas. Meanwhile, the disease spread into U.S. civilian communities.

The influenza virus mutates rapidly, changing enough that the human immune system has difficulty recognizing and attacking it even from one season to the next. A pandemic occurs when an entirely new and virulent influenza virus, which the immune system has not previously seen, enters the population and spreads worldwide. Ordinary seasonal influenza viruses normally bind only to cells in the upper respiratory tract—the nose and throat—which is why they transmit easily.

The 1918 pandemic virus infected cells in the upper respiratory tract, transmitting easily, but also deep in the lungs, damaging tissue and often leading to viral as well as bacterial pneumonias.

Although some researchers argue that the 1918 pandemic began elsewhere, in France in 1916 or China and Vietnam in 1917, many other studies indicate a U.S. origin.

The Australian immunologist and Nobel laureate Macfarlane Burnet, who spent most of his career studying influenza, concluded the evidence was “strongly suggestive” that the disease started in the United States and spread to France with “the arrival of American troops.”

Camp Funston had long been considered as the site where the pandemic started until my historical research, published in 2004, pointed to an earlier outbreak in Haskell County.

Wherever it began, the pandemic lasted just 15 months but was the deadliest disease outbreak in human history, killing between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, according to the most widely cited analysis.

An exact global number is unlikely ever to be determined, given the lack of suitable records in much of the world at that time. But it’s clear the pandemic killed more people in a year than AIDS has killed in 40 years, more than the bubonic plague killed in a century.

The impact of the pandemic on the United States is sobering to contemplate: Some 670,000 Americans died.

In 1918, medicine had barely become modern; some scientists still believed “miasma” accounted for influenza’s spread. With medicine’s advances since then, laypeople have become rather complacent about influenza. Today we worry about Ebola or Zika or MERS or other exotic pathogens, not a disease often confused with the common cold. This is a mistake.

We are arguably as vulnerable—or more vulnerable—to another pandemic as we were in 1918.

Today top public health experts routinely rank influenza as potentially the most dangerous “emerging” health threat we face.

Earlier this year, upon leaving his post as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tom Frieden was asked what scared him the most, what kept him up at night. “The biggest concern is always for an influenza pandemic…[It] really is the worst-case scenario.” So the tragic events of 100 years ago have a surprising urgency—especially since the most crucial lessons to be learned from the disaster have yet to be absorbed.


Initially the 1918 pandemic set off few alarms, chiefly because in most places it rarely killed, despite the enormous numbers of people infected.

Doctors in the British Grand Fleet, for example, admitted 10,313 sailors to sick bay in May and June, but only 4 died. It had hit both warring armies in France in April, but troops dismissed it as “three-day fever.”

The only attention it got came when it swept through Spain, and sickened the king; the press in Spain, which was not at war, wrote at length about the disease, unlike the censored press in warring countries, including the United States. Hence it became known as “Spanish flu.

By June influenza reached from Algeria to New Zealand.

Still, a 1927 study concluded, “In many parts of the world the first wave either was so faint as to be hardly perceptible or was altogether lacking…and was everywhere of a mild form.” Some experts argued that it was too mild to be influenza.

Yet there were warnings, ominous ones. Though few died in the spring, those who did were often healthy young adults—people whom influenza rarely kills. Here and there, local outbreaks were not so mild.

At one French Army post of 1,018 soldiers, 688 were hospitalized and 49 died—5% of that population of young men, dead.

And some deaths in the first wave were overlooked because they were misdiagnosed, often as meningitis. A puzzled Chicago pathologist observed lung tissue heavy with fluid and “full of hemorrhages” and asked another expert if it represented “a new disease.”

image:×0/ ravaged lung
A ravaged lung (at the National Museum of Health and Medicine) from a U.S. soldier killed by flu in 1918. (Cade Martin)

By July it didn’t seem to matter. As a U.S. Army medical bulletin reported from France, the “epidemic is about at an end…and has been throughout of a benign type.” A British medical journal stated flatly that influenza “has completely disappeared.”

In fact, it was more like a great tsunami that initially pulls water away from the shore—only to return in a towering, overwhelming surge. In August, the affliction resurfaced in Switzerland in a form so virulent that a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, in a report stamped “Secret and Confidential,” warned “that the disease now epidemic throughout Switzerland is what is commonly known as the black plague, although it is designated as Spanish sickness and grip.”

The second wave had begun.


The hospital at Camp Devens, an Army training base 35 miles from Boston that teemed with 45,000 soldiers, could accommodate 1,200 patients. On September 1, it held 84.

On September 7, a soldier sent to the hospital delirious and screaming when touched was diagnosed with meningitis. The next day a dozen more men from his company were diagnosed with meningitis. But as more men fell ill, physicians changed the diagnosis to influenza. Suddenly, an Army report noted, “the influenza…occurred as an explosion.”

At the outbreak’s peak, 1,543 soldiers reported ill with influenza in a single day. Now, with hospital facilities overwhelmed, with also doctors and nurses sick, with too few cafeteria workers to feed patients and staff, the hospital ceased accepting patients, no matter how ill, leaving thousands more sick and dying in barracks.

Roy Grist, a physician at the hospital, wrote a colleague,

“These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of La Grippe or Influenza, and when brought to the Hosp. they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis”—the term refers to a person turning blue from lack of oxygen—“extending from their ears and spreading all over the face….It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes…It is horrible….We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day…For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce…”

Devens, and the Boston area, was the first place in the Americas hit by the pandemic’s second wave. Before it ended, influenza was everywhere, from ice-bound Alaska to steaming Africa. And this time it was lethal.


The killing created its own horrors. Governments aggravated them, partly because of the war. For instance, the U.S. military took roughly half of all physicians under 45—and most of the best ones.

What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth.

When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.”

So Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State…or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.”

Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.

Early in September, a Navy ship from Boston carried influenza to Philadelphia, where the disease erupted in the Navy Yard. The city’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared that he would “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.”

The next day two sailors died of influenza. Krusen stated they died of “old-fashioned influenza or grip,” not Spanish flu. Another health official declared, “From now on the disease will decrease.”

The next day 14 sailors died—and the first civilian. Each day the disease accelerated. Each day newspapers assured readers that influenza posed no danger. Krusen assured the city he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.”

By September 26, influenza had spread across the country, and so many military training camps were beginning to look like Devens that the Army canceled its nationwide draft call.

Philadelphia had scheduled a big Liberty Loan parade for September 28.

Doctors urged Krusen to cancel it, fearful that hundreds of thousands jamming the route, crushing against each other for a better view, would spread disease. They convinced reporters to write stories about the danger. But editors refused to run them, and refused to print letters from doctors. The largest parade in Philadelphia’s history proceeded on schedule.

The incubation period of influenza is two to three days. Two days after the parade, Krusen conceded that the epidemic “now present in the civilian population was…assuming the type found in” Army camps. Still, he cautioned not to be “panic stricken over exaggerated reports.”

He needn’t have worried about exaggeration; the newspapers were on his side. “Scientific Nursing Halting Epidemic,” an Inquirer headline blared.

In truth, nurses had no impact because none were available: Out of 3,100 urgent requests for nurses submitted to one dispatcher, only 193 were provided.

Krusen finally and belatedly ordered all schools closed and banned all public gatherings—yet a newspaper nonsensically said the order was not “a public health measure” and “there is no cause for panic or alarm.”

There was plenty of cause. At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 people in Philadelphia died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza…[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers.

Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots …with influenza patients…There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes.

And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

In most disasters, people come together, help each other, as we saw recently with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But in 1918, without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people looked after only themselves.

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come.

The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied.

Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing.

Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

Philadelphia’s misery was not unique.

In Luce County, Michigan, a couple and three children were all sick together, but, a Red Cross worker reported, “Not one of the neighbors would come in and help. I …telephoned the woman’s sister. She came and tapped on the window, but refused to talk to me until she had gotten a safe distance away.”

In New Haven, Connecticut, John Delano recalled, “Normally when someone was sick in those days [people] would bring food over to other families but…Nobody was coming in, nobody would bring food in, nobody came to visit.” In Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged for help, pleaded that there were “hundreds of cases…[of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.”

Red Cross workers carried a stretcher in 1918; names fill an Army hospital ledger.
Red Cross workers carried a stretcher in 1918; names fill an Army hospital ledger. (Hollie Chastain)

In Goldsboro, North Carolina, Dan Tonkel recalled, “We were actually almost afraid to breathe...You were afraid even to go out…The fear was so great people were actually afraid to leave their homes…afraid to talk to one another.”

In Washington, D.C., William Sardo said, “It kept people apart…You had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing…It completely destroyed all family and community life…The terrifying aspect was when each day dawned you didn’t know whether you would be there when the sun set that day.”

An internal American Red Cross report concluded, “A fear and panic of the influenza, akin to the terror of the Middle Ages regarding the Black Plague, [has] been prevalent in many parts of the country.”

Fear emptied places of employment, emptied cities. Shipbuilding workers throughout the Northeast were told they were as important to the war effort as soldiers at the front.

Yet at the L.H. Shattuck Co. only 54% of its workers showed up; at the George A. Gilchrist yard only 45 percent did; at Freeport Shipbuilding only 43 percent; at Groton Iron Works, 41 percent.

Fear emptied the streets, too.

A medical student working in an emergency hospital in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest cities, encountered so few cars on the road he took to counting them. One night, driving the 12 miles home, he saw not a single car. “The life of the city had almost stopped,” he said.

On the other side of the globe, in Wellington, New Zealand, another man stepped outside his emergency hospital and found the same thing: “I stood in the middle of Wellington City at 2 P.M. on a weekday afternoon, and there was not a soul to be seen; no trams running; no shops open, and the only traffic was a van with a white sheet tied to the side with a big red cross painted on it, serving as an ambulance or hearse. It was really a city of the dead.”

Victor Vaughan, formerly the dean of the University of Michigan’s Medical School, was not a man to resort to hyperbole. Now the head of the Army’s communicable disease division, he jotted down his private fear: “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily disappear…from the face of the earth within a matter of a few more weeks.”


Then, as suddenly as it came, influenza seemed to disappear. It had burned through the available fuel in a given community. An undercurrent of unease remained, but aided by the euphoria accompanying the end of the war, traffic returned to streets, schools and businesses reopened, society returned to normal.

A third wave followed in January 1919, ending in the spring. This was lethal by any standard except the second wave, and one particular case would have an exceptional impact on history.

On April 3, 1919, during the Versailles Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson collapsed. His sudden weakness and severe confusion halfway through that conference—widely commented upon—very possibly contributed to his abandoning his principles. The result was the disastrous peace treaty, which would later contribute to the start of World War II. Some historians have attributed Wilson’s confusion to a minor stroke. In fact, he had a 103 degree temperature, intense coughing fits, diarrhea and other serious symptoms. A stroke explains none of the symptoms. Influenza, which was then widespread in Paris and killed a young aide to Wilson, explains all of them—including his confusion. Experts would later agree that many patients afflicted by the pandemic influenza had cognitive or psychological symptoms. As an authoritative 1927 medical review concluded, “There is no doubt that the neuropsychiatric effects of influenza are profound…hardly second to its effect on the respiratory system.”

After that third wave, the 1918 virus did not go away, but it did lose its extraordinary lethality, partly because many human immune systems now recognized it and partly because it lost the ability to easily invade the lungs. No longer a bloodthirsty murderer, it evolved into a seasonal influenza.

Scientists and other experts are still asking questions about the virus and the devastation it caused, including why the second wave was so much more lethal than the first. Researchers aren’t certain, and some argue that the first wave was caused by an ordinary seasonal influenza virus that was different from the pandemic virus; but the evidence seems overwhelming that the pandemic virus had both a mild and virulent form, causing mild as well as severe spring outbreaks, and then, for reasons that remain unclear, the virulent form of the virus became more common in the fall.

Another question concerns who died. Even though the death toll was historic, most people who were infected by the pandemic virus survived; in the developed world, the overall mortality was about 2 percent. In the less developed world, mortality was worse. In Mexico, estimates of the dead range from 2.3 to 4 percent of the entire population. Much of Russia and Iran saw 7 percent of the population die. In the Fiji Islands 14 percent of the population died—in 16 days. One-third of the population of Labrador died. In small native villages in Alaska and Gambia, everyone died, probably because all got sick simultaneously and no one could provide care, could not even give people water, and perhaps because, with so much death around them, those who might have survived did not fight.

The age of the victims was also striking. Normally, elderly people account for the overwhelming number of influenza deaths; in 1918, that was reversed, with young adults killed in the highest numbers. This effect was heightened within certain subgroups. For instance, a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company study of people aged 25 to 45 found that 3.26 percent of all industrial workers and 6 percent of all coal miners died. Other studies found that for pregnant women, fatality rates ranged from 23 percent to 71 percent.

Why did so many young adults die? As it happens, young adults have the strongest immune systems, which attacked the virus with every weapon possible—including chemicals called cytokines and other microbe-fighting toxins—and the battlefield was the lung. These “cytokine storms” further damaged the patient’s own tissue. The destruction, according to the noted influenza expert Edwin Kilbourne, resembled nothing so much as the lesions from breathing poison gas.


During the autumn of 1918, the Red Cross ambulance station in Washington, D.C. was especially busy.(Library of Congress)

Seasonal influenza is bad enough. Over the past four decades it has killed 3,000 to 48,000 Americans annually, depending on the dominant virus strains in circulation, among other things. And more deadly possibilities loom.

In recent years, two different bird influenza viruses have been infecting people directly: the H5N1 strain has struck in many nations, while H7N9 is still limited to China (see “The Birth of a Killer”). All told, these two avian influenza viruses had killed 1,032 out of the 2,439 people infected as of this past July—a staggering mortality rate. Scientists say that both virus strains, so far, bind only to cells deep in the lung and do not pass from person to person. If either one acquires the ability to infect the upper respiratory tract, through mutation or by swapping genes with an existing human virus, a deadly pandemic is possible.

Prompted by the re-emergence of avian influenza, governments, NGOs and major businesses around the world have poured resources into preparing for a pandemic. Because of my history of the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, I was asked to participate in some of those efforts.

Public health experts agree that the highest priority is to develop a “universal vaccine” that confers immunity against virtually all influenza viruses likely to infect humans (see “How to Stop a Lethal Virus”). Without such a vaccine, if a new pandemic virus surfaces, we will have to produce a vaccine specifically for it; doing so will take months and the vaccine may offer only marginal protection.

Another key step to improving pandemic readiness is to expand research on antiviral drugs; none is highly effective against influenza, and some strains have apparently acquired resistance to the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

Then there are the less glamorous measures, known as nonpharmaceutical interventions: hand-washing, telecommuting, covering coughs, staying home when sick instead of going to work and, if the pandemic is severe enough, widespread school closings and possibly more extreme controls. The hope is that “layering” such actions one atop another will reduce the impact of an outbreak on public health and on resources in today’s just-in-time economy. But the effectiveness of such interventions will depend on public compliance, and the public will have to trust what it is being told.

That is why, in my view, the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth. Though that idea is incorporated into every preparedness plan I know of, its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.

I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles involving area public health officials. Before the exercise began, I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.

Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.

The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. What did he do? He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.

I was stunned. This official had not actually told a lie, but he had deliberately minimized the danger; whether or not this particular patient had the disease, a pandemic was coming. The official’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press or even acknowledge the pandemic’s inevitability meant that citizens would look elsewhere for answers, and probably find a lot of bad ones. Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.

And that was only a game.

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter


 Massive Impact, Uncertain Future? Avian Flu Epidemic

You might have to be an avid reader of medical journals—or a poultry farmer—to notice that the United States is in the midst of a slow-motion disease disaster.

The disease is avian influenza, and though it has not, as yet, affected any people, it is wreaking havoc nonetheless.

As of Monday, almost 26 million chickens and turkeys have either died, or been killed to keep the disease from spreading.

Three states—Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin—have declared states of emergency.

Layoffs have begun at poultry farms, and the industry is warning that there may not be enough surviving turkeys to fill tables at Thanksgiving.

The federal government has released $330 million in emergency funds, and in Minnesota, the National Guard has been called out.

Twenty-six million sounds like a lot of birds—but while the epidemic is devastating to states and to individual farmers, so far it has barely dented the United States’ poultry supply.

The U.S., after all, produces about 9 billion meat chickens, 360 million laying hens and 240 million turkeys per year; the current losses equal less than three-tenths of one percent of the total.

Poultry raising, though, is an intricate economy of many moving parts.

The potential losses from this epidemic include not only individual farm businesses—that is, the income of farm families, and of their workers and their families—but also the businesses they use, from feed dealers to equipment sales and service to slaughterhouse and packing workers to the cafe in the local town.

Beyond that, there is an international ripple effect as well.

Each of the top 10 importers of U.S. poultry products has either banned their being imported or restricted them in some way. Those restrictions extend beyond meat and eggs to breeding stock—which means that, if the epidemic continues, other countries will see cuts in their poultry supply too.

And even more than the economic impact, there is concern about a possible medical one.

A particular strain of avian influenza—technically, high-pathogenic H5N1—caused great alarm in 1997. (See my last post on bird flu for a short primer on terminology.) It jumped from birds to humans in Hong Kong, sickening 18 people and killing six of them.

It was suppressed only by killing all the chickens in the Hong Kong territory—but flared up again in 2003 in Vietnam, and began moving through Asia and west.

To date, according to the World Health Organization, it has sickened 826 people and killed 440, more than half of them.

And because the greatest flu pandemic known to history, the “Spanish flu” of 1918—which killed at least 50 million and possibly 100 million people around the world— began as an avian virus, disease authorities watch any bloom of bird flu carefully, braced in case another strain makes that bird-to-human leap.

There is no evidence yet that this bird flu has. “While we are cautiously optimistic that there will not be human cases, we must be prepared for that possibility and we are taking routine preparedness steps, including studying these viruses further and creating candidate vaccine viruses which could be used to make a vaccine for people if one were needed,” Dr. Alicia Fry of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on a CDC-USDA conference call two weeks ago. “So far, genetic analysis has not shown any of the markers that are known to be associated with increased severity of illness in people or an increased ability to be spread to people or spread among people.”

A remarkable thing about this epidemic: It has been spreading since last December (as I covered at our sister blog The Plate).

It was spotted first in British Columbia, hopped cross-border to Washington and Oregon, and then began to move inward across the continent.

It exploded when it reached Minnesota, the center of the turkey industry, and Iowa, one of the centers of the egg industry, because the farms where the virus has landed are enormous: One chicken facility held 5.7 million birds, two others held more than 3 million, and the two largest turkey farms housed more than 300,000 each.

I spoke to several scientists working on the outbreak who asked not to be identified.

They acknowledged that exactly how this flu is spreading is not clear. The usual source of avian flu is wild waterfowl, primarily ducks, which pick the strains up in Asia without being made sick by them, and spread them across the globe as they migrate.

Ducks can intermingle with backyard poultry—and they were observed doing that in the British Columbia outbreaks, which occurred on small farms—but they have little chance of making contact with conventionally raised birds. Those large farms (such as the multi-million-bird ones in this outbreak) keep their birds entirely inside buildings, and are expected to have tight biosecurity precisely because confined conditions make it easier for diseases to spread.

The scientists I spoke to said it is possible the flu is now being spread, not by other birds, but by humans—and not because the humans are infected, but because they are unknowingly transporting the virus from one place to another.

That could happen via anything that comes onto a farm and has already been on another farm: a truck, car tires, even the clothing or equipment of delivery drivers, equipment-service workers or veterinary technicians. It could even come from water sources elsewhere on a farm that have been contaminated by ducks landing on them, if the water is used to spray down barns or flush away manure.

If that speculation is correct, then controlling the spread of the virus will be unusually challenging—but it will have to be managed, because biosecurity is the industry’s current best defense. Unlike some other countries, the United States does not routinely vaccinate poultry against bird flu.

One researcher I spoke to described an outbreak of this size as being like a 100-year flood: for 99 of those years, the expense of vaccinating flocks would not be justified, and—unless it was mandatory for all producers—could put some farmers at a competitive disadvantage versus other farmers who did not buy the vaccine.

(In fact, the last major outbreak of high-pathogenic bird flu in the U.S. was not 100 years ago, but 32: There was a multi-state outbreak in 1983-84, when 17 million birds died or were killed.

Before that, the last large U.S. outbreak was in 1929.)

I asked the sources who talked to me what they expected to happen next, and they were cautious. Influenza viruses prefer cooler weather; in the USDA’s April briefing, officials predicted viral spread would slow as summer arrives. That would solve the problem, but only until autumn, when migrating waterfowl could bring the virus south again.

If high-pathogenic bird flu became something that had to be defended against every year, that could force  the poultry industry to change its operations in significant and expensive ways.

What the risk is of that happening, no one yet can say.

Where have all the criminals gone?

In the first half century, incidence of violent crimes in the USA was fairly steady. Why?

Infantile mortality was very high due to lack of vaccination and treatments for curable diseases.  All those unwanted children from single parent families died prematurely. and the pool of potential criminals living in poor and uneducated families and in poor neighborhoods was manageable.

Mind you that million died of the “Spanish” flu after soldiers returned from WWI front, and this contagious disease lasted for years. Tuberculosis had no vaccine yet, as many other diseases commonly contracted in early years….

By 1960, violent crime rate increased steadily, so did the economy and the employment rates.

During the period of the civil rights movement, the 60’s and early 70’s, conviction rates declined, as were sentences duration for most of the crimes committed. Why? Judges and political climate didn’t want to be labeled racist or believing in apartheid (fear of being viewed as racist and backward) since more crimes, proportionally, were committed by Blacks and Hispanics living in poor neighborhoods.

Between 1980-2000, the period witnessed a 15-fold increase in the number of convicts on drug charges, and sentence duration increased accordingly.

By 2000, the US prison system had more than 2 million convicts, a 4-fold increase as of 1972.

Mind you that a prisoner costs $25,000 per year to keeping him behind bars and away from the streets…

As of early 1990, crime rates of all categories, especially violent crimes, started to decline sharply and steadily. Criminology experts had warned that crime epidemics will get out of control, and they needed so time to realize that it was the opposite trend that was taking its steady course.

Between 1991 and 2001, crime experts extended many explanations for this aberrant trend of crime decline. Here are a few of the explanations with frequency of citations in the media:

1. Innovative policing strategies:  52 citations

2. Increased reliance on prison: 47

3. Changes in crack and other drug markets: 33

4. Aging population: 32

5. Tougher gun-control laws: 32

6. Strong economy: 28

7. Increased number of police force: 26

8. Increase use of capital punishment: 24

9. Concealed-weapon laws

10. Gun buybacks policies

Only 3 of the above 10 explanations had significant effects on crime decline, mainly factors 2, 3, and 7.

There are strong correlation, if not causative explanation, among the trends of increased reliance on prison, prison duration, increase conviction rates and the number of law and order effective in order to round-up, capture, process, and prosecute criminals.  Consequently, it can be said that the increase in police forces was associated with a political policy of increasing conviction rates and expanding the prison system. These factors accounted for almost one-third of the crime drop.

In that period, cocaine and heroine prices dropped, and it was no longer worth sacrificing years in prison for small returns on crimes…

The main factor that was behind the decline and accounted for two-third was never mentioned or even contemplated.  This factor needed about 17 years of incubation (gestation) before it generated its powerful effect, and it is the legalized abortion law that took effect in 1973 in all US States. A few large cities in States such as New York, Illinois, California… that had legal abortion laws before 1973, all had witnessed decline in crime rates before all other States.

All those unwanted children, born from single mothers or living in single families in poor neighborhoods and uneducated parents, were not born and had not to be raised to emulate their predecessors, as highly potential criminals in the waiting and the making.

That is what the analysis of Steven Levitt showed from torturing huge data-bases on the subject. Read Freakonomis.


“Peace treaty”: Paris, 1919; (Nov. 14, 2009)

I watched a documentary on the French channel TV5 this Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009. The documentary was relating and commenting on the 5 months that dragged on before the most lousy “peace treaty” was finally signed to end WWI.

The chiefs of the main 5 nations who won in the First World War sat around in Paris to discuss how to partition the world.  The government chiefs were: USA (Wilson), Britain (Lloyd George), France (Clemenceau), Italy, and Japan.  Germany had ceased fire; the Kaiser, “Emperor Guillaume“, is settled in the Netherlands.  Turkey is declared defeated as ally to Germany.

Every delegation from all over the world, when allowed, was given 10 minutes to expose his case and demands.  Ho Chi Minh (from Viet Nam) was refused an appointment; he will later defeat the French in 1954 and then the US forces in 1973.

Wilson wanted to discuss establishing a world organization of State of Nations to prevent further military escalations; the other four leaders were trying hard to convince Wilson that they are not against this idea but there are more urgent matters to resolve at this junction.

The four other leaders wanted to redraw world’s borders; cartographers spent 5 months redrawing borders.  Wilson wanted the people to decide and vote for their destiny; the other four leaders tried hard to educating Wilson on pragmatic procedures.

In the meantime, Communism was spreading everywhere in Europe and the USA.  The “Spanish flu” had decimated 20 millions in Europe and America (it was called the “Spanish flu” simply because it was the Spanish press that divulged this scourge that States were trying to keep under cover).

Soldiers were returning from the war front at the pace of 100,000 each month; I see one-legged soldiers hoping around in a baseball game and their companions laughing and having good time. Soldiers were returning home to experience famine, miseries, and desolate institutions to take care of business.

The world’s “five leaders” are smoking cigars and pipes and looking mightily serious. Lloyd George wanted 300 billions in gold for war reparation from Germany; his financial counselor, the famous Keynes, is steadfastly suggesting agreeing on 10 billions for material damages on the ground that Germany could barely pay even that amount; Lloyd George had plenty of time to get practical at this stage.

Wilson does not want any reparations and the other four leaders are fuming because it was not the US that lost millions of dead and injured soldiers and civilians in the war.

Clemenceau wants

1. to recover the Alsace and Loraine in addition to

2.  La Sarre region, rich in coal production, in Germany, in order to exploit for 15 years as war reparation.

The Italian President just wants a port on the Adriatic Sea as an advanced post to check any resurgence of hostility but the other leaders adamantly refused his wish.

A Germany delegation of over 110 individuals arrives in Paris to deal a peace treaty.

The train is made to stop first in Verdun where 450,000 soldiers on both sides died. This delegation is typing reams of legal papers claiming that they are not the only culprit for starting the war.

The vanquishers have no time to read the German side of view: they want Germany to admit that it is the sole bad party and that it had lost the war. The Germans are upset: why discuss a peace treaty if the other party has already made his mind?

The German delegation refused the humiliating peace deal and the war was on the verge of resuming.  The German sank their merchant marine in order not to be captured by the allies.

Clemenceau is furious because he could not convince Lloyd George to jointly board these ships to avoid sabotage.

By now, Wilson is totally worn out and more hawkish than even Clemenceau. In the last 5 days before the refusal of Germany to sign the humiliating peace treaty Lloyd George had second thoughts: if Germany is completely humiliated then any demy-god would take power and start another war.

Lloyd George also needed to trade goods with a strong Germany. What Keynes suggested as reasonable reparation of 10 billions in gold is fine with Lloyd; Germany does not need to admit that it lost the war.

The problem was how to convince Wilson after manipulating him for five month on pragmatic politics. Wilson is adamant: Germany has to understand that it lost the war; period!  The German Chancellor resigned and another peace delegation arrived in Paris and signed the treaty in Versailles. Wilson could go home to face major downturns.

The Italian President lost the election and could not attend the peace signing ceremony: Mussolini was on the rise.

The American Congress refused the plan of Wilson for establishing the Society of Nations.

China and Japan were not satisfied; Japan will invade China in 1935 and capture Korea as a colony.

While the leaders in Paris were discussing dividing the world into mandated colonies, Wilson’s concept of people deciding on their future destiny by vote went down the drain as the months eroded his determination into “pragmatic” attitudes.

Clemenceau got just what he asked La Sarre. and Poland recaptured a region in Germany with the Danzig port.

The Middle East people want independence from Turkey that lost the war. No problems.

Turkey is to lose the eastern region for an independent Armenia, the western region for Greece, including the city of Izmir, and the southern region under French mandate. The army of Mustapha Kemal “Ataturk” will recapture all the lands taken out of Turkey, including the Syrian land of Antaquia and Iskandaroun.

Hussein of Mecca has many children. One of them by the named of Faissal is appointed King to Syria and Lebanon. Another by the name of Abdullah is appointed King to Jordan. A third is appointed King to Iraq, I think: I am confused.

Wilson sent a delegation to gather field intelligence on the wishes of the people. Clemenceau and Lloyd George had another plan: they partition the Middle East between them.

France is to have mandate on Syria, Lebanon, and “Antaquia” in Turkey that Syria claimed to be part of its lands.  England is to have mandate on Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. There were barely 5,000 immigrant Jews in Palestine at the time.

Clemenceau sent a French army to depose King Faissal and govern his “mandated people”.

Mount Lebanon is split from Syria and more lands are attached to Lebanon so that it might have the illusion of agricultural “self-sufficiency”.




December 2022

Blog Stats

  • 1,513,692 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by

Join 820 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: