West Nile? Meet "The Mother of all Viruses"

West Nile? Meet "The Mother of all Viruses"
By Dr. Paul Loatman, City Historian

November 7, 2001

Had your flu shot yet? The media have been warning for months about the spread of the West Nile Virus, but thankfully, it has led to only one fatality this year. Public attention of this sort contrasts sharply with that given to the worst viral pandemic in this, or possibly any century - the so-called "Spanish Influenza" epidemic of 1918-19. Those old enough to remember the Church of the Assumption before it was "modernized" will recall a statue of St. Rocco to the upper tell of the altar given by the DeMatteos, Matarazzos, and other families from the paese of Caiazzo in thanksgiving for the saint's protection of the Italian parish against the scourge which claimed so many lives. Saintly intervention may have been the only defense against the plague when all was said and done.

To put the issue in perspective, 10 million people died in four years during the First World War. In less than four months, over 20 million died of the flu, including nearly 700,000 Americans who perished during an eight-week period, victimized by what was commonly referred to as the "Spanish Influenza" or “la grippe.” To make things more comprehensible, we can study the impact the disease had on Mechanicville and surrounding communities. The flu first appeared in March, 1918, at Fort Riley, Kansas where it struck 8,000 recruits, killing 50 of them. After disappearing for a few months, it sprang up again simultaneously in Europe, Africa, and India with devastating effects. When it reappeared in Boston (the first U.S. city to be struck), it hit with violent force, killing 200 people in one day.

Local newspapers began to take notice of the phenomenon in September, but war news about the American Expeditionary Force in France along with coverage of local Liberty Bond drives supporting the war-effort dominated news coverage. Most upstate New Yorkers felt secure that while the flu might affect large port cities and army installations, they were far enough inland to be protected. A note of caution, however, was sounded by The Saratogian on September 24, when the story, "Epidemic in Schuylerville," related the fact that the State Health Department intended to send a doctor there to investigate the outbreak, with the promise that "every [business] will be closed to stop the spread of the disease." Schools had been closed a few days earlier, but Schuylerville's situation drew mention because it seemed so unusual. As fate would have it, however, that village was merely experiencing an early taste of what was in store for all local communities.

On September 26, The Saratogian reassuringly quoted the commandant of the Great Lakes Naval Station that the epidemic was broken, while New York City officials were reporting fewer than 100 new cases of the flu. However, the following day, an outbreak at a military camp near Syracuse led one person to note, "Prominent [doctors] are calling upon the [city] to wake up and prepare to care for civilian patients." A Mechanicville military enlistee, Raymond Clapp, died at Camp Devens of the flu, but plans were moving forward for Mechanicville's huge Liberty Bond parade. Meanwhile, Dr. A. Sherman Downs of Saratoga appears to have spoken for all local health officers when he noted, "No Epidemic Influenza Here," ignoring a double funeral for mother-and-daughter flu victims in Schuylerville.

In Washington, D.C., Congress appropriated the paltry sum of $1 million in the face of the emergency, the total of all funds it would expend on the medical disaster, thus fulfilling the wishes of those who believed the federal government should let local authorities deal with their own problems. What the legislators failed to recognize, however, was that the epidemic was a national problem, infecting people everywhere, killing over half a million Americans in a matter of weeks, How unprepared people were locally in dealing with the problem became manifest almost immediately.

Health officials were frankly overmatched and the press wavered back and forth between issuing lame warnings and reassuring the public that all was well. On September 29, one local doctor promised everyone that "sunshine and fresh air" were guaranteed cures and parents need not fear sending their children to school. Five days later, while the State Health Commissioner recommended leaving schools open because he felt children would be better off there than running around the streets, some local health officers began ordering the closing of theaters as a precautionary step. Still, newspaper readers were told, "the disease is not … alarming in itself if proper precautions are taken," ignoring the fact that doctors did not have a clue about what, if any, precautions might be effective.

In early October, with more than 300 cases of the flu reported in Mechanicville, all schools were ordered closed, the planned War Chest giant parade was cancelled, and all funerals had to be held in private. The day these actions were reported in newspapers, October 10, death records reveal that four city residents died of the flu, the average age of the victims: 29 years old. Striking young healthy men and women in their prime with little warning was typical of this epidemic. The elderly and the young-usually the most vulnerable- were paradoxically spared for the most part. Public attention to these grim facts probably became more focused in the next few days. While newspapers reported, "Epidemic Spreading at Ballston Spa," the 32-year-old principal at Stillwater, Alex Bacon, died after a brief bout with the virus. That same week, Fr. Daniel Scalabrella, an Augustinian immigrant priest stationed here, returned on Saturday from a religious retreat at Villanova. He fell ill Sunday afternoon, entered St. Mary's Hospital in Troy that evening, and died the following morning. He was 41 years old, one of three local Catholic priests who died in the epidemic. The day before his death, The Saratogian had noted: "the Epidemic [is] Light in Mechanicville," in a story side-by-side with a large advertisement for Vicks Vaporub. Vicks, of course, had to compete with "home remedies" like that sent to newspapers by a former area resident which promised that egg whites and mustard placed alternately on the back of the neck and pit of the stomach in 20 minute intervals would provide a sure-fire cure. Failing that, a boiling cup of hot water and liquorice, consumed when hottest, was offered as another guaranteed remedy. To be sure, people seemed to be clutching at straws while authorities wanted to avoid causing alarm by dismissing “home remedies” as all but useless.

Contradicting its own previous story, The Sartogian reported on October 18 that "la grippe," as the flu was called at times, had felled more than 200 people here. Dr. Van Doren, Mechanicville City Health Officer, maintained the ban on school openings and any form of public gatherings, and funerals continued to be held privately. The fact that people were denied the comfort and solace of friends and relatives in the hour of their greatest need must have made their mourning especially painful. Of come, things were worse in larger cities like Buffalo where the coffins of the dead were stacked in the streets for want of healthy gravediggers. That city, by the way, opened a municipal coffin factory because of the increased demand for them. In Mechanicville, eight people died that week from the flu, including six young women, average age 18, facts which may have led the City Council to establish an emergency "influenza hospital" on North Main St. The facility, manned by five nurses and their assistants from Boston, was needed because, as the newspaper reported, "local physicians are working night and day and their efforts are taxed to the utmost to care for all who need them." One physician, Dr. Anthony Mauro, especially active in the Italian immigrant community, was further challenged when his 3l-year-old wife died of influenza. Less than a week after the opening of the temporary hospital on North Main St., St. John's Polish Hall in Riverside also was converted into an "emergency influenza hospital." The illness was particularly virulent in that part of the community.

Despite any serious let-up in the epidemic, newspaper stories about it became scarcer as "The Great War" wound down in early November. Mechanicville's two emergency hospitals closed shortly before the Armistice was signed on November 11, but whether the seven young men who died that week of the flu would have survived the epidemic if the facilities had remained open is doubtful. By Armistice Day, November 11, when newspapers used 2-inch headlines  to announce that "HUNS SURRENDER," a reader would be hard-pressed to find much notice of the deadly flu swamped as they were amidst stories of victory celebrations and speculation about the post-war world. Yet,on November 18, one note of realism did appear, albeit in an understated manner, with the appearance of a story headed, "Influenza More Deadly Than Battle." The report noted that data collected from 42 cities in the past eight weeks indicated that over 80,000 Americans had died at home while the war raged abroad. It would take years, however, because of the lack of data (and public disinterest) before Americans realized that almost three-quarters of a million had died from "la grippe." In the meantime, the virus continued claiming victims at a significant rate into the new year, with Mechanicville's last victim, a young boy, dying on April 5, 1919.

What "lessons" were learned through this experience? Almost none, it appears. Reviewing the newspapers of that era is frustrating because the headlines screamed news about the war while residents were dropping like flies from the flu. Congress took a "hands-off' attitude, appropriating a paltry $1 million to fight the disease. The State Health Department declared that it would collect data on the epidemic, but any conclusions it reached were not proclaimed to the public. The Public Health Service had no recommendations to make; we do not know much more about viruses today than we did in 1910; and scientists are unsure whether they should investigate the DNA of flu victims' remains recently recovered from the frozen Arctic. Their queasiness arises from the fact that in studying the remains of 1918 flu victims, they could accidentally release the deadly virus into the public domain again. History books hardly take note of the most deadly pandemic in American History.

Was there anything anyone could have done? Locally, most people appeared to have hoped that the disease could be confined to the large seaboard cities, and many "whistled in the dark" when the evidence in terms of dead bodies began to pile up around them. Early on, one Saratoga clergyman counseled that everyone should practice "the patience of St. Paul," but otherwise, any later thoughts emanating from the pulpit never found their way into the local press. In the final analysis, St. Rocco may have been as good, or better, a cure as anything else. Defying common sense, both in Mechanicville and across the nation, poor immigrant communities and the elderly (the usual targets of flu epidemics) experienced less mortality than native-born Americans in the 20-to-50-age bracket. Possibly, the crowded living conditions they experienced helped immigrants to develop immunities to the flu. While that statistic seems to defy common sense, this pattern manifested itself in communities across the nation. The elderly may have benefited from having survived another particularly virulent epidemic in 1890. As for me, I plan on getting my flu shot soon, but I’m hedging my bets by trying to relocate that statue of St. Rocco.

[Afterword, December 27,2005: scientists have decided recently to unfreeze the residual 1918 flu strain in hope of decoding its DNA, doing so in the face of the recent avian flu scare in China. In another regard, the educated guess that older people who had survived an earlier flu epidemic in 1890 may have developed some immunity from the 1918 pandemic appears to be born out by local newspaper reports of hundreds of flu victims being struck with “la grippe” in January, 1890. While the Mechanicville Saturday Mercury for that period is quite precise in detailing the epidemic, neither it nor local death records are complete enough to tell us how many people died from that earlier pandemic.]