Wednesday , April 21 2021

The unsuspecting places that managed to escape the worst epidemic of the 20th century – BBC News



Dirty and frightened, three little children reached the beach. They had a very high fever, and behind their small bodies, on board the small sailboat from which they had landed, were the bodies of two dead men.

The group was trying to escape outbreak of an illness that he ravaged his secluded small village upstream where the Naknek River ran aground in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

His unexpected arrival at the Diamond O cannery of the Alaskan Packers Association in Naknek, "Spanish flu" which had wreaked havoc on much of the world, had also reached this remote corner of the ice-covered land.

The inhospitable weather conditions of winter prevented the months of September and May from approaching these payments, which until that moment had get away from the flu which affected the population of much of the world during the year 1918.

The pandemic had cost between 50 and 100 million lives, more than the total number of deaths due to the terrors of First World War.

The arrival of the boat to the cannery on June 4, 1919, indicated that the disease had finally found its way to the remote Inuit native communities, people on the coast of Alaska.

The next day, the superintendent of the cannery sent a team to the children's village to see if they could help.

What they found was horrible.

The accounts of the expedition's men described that the town of Savonoski was in a "deplorable state" and "miserable." Almost the entire adult population of a small group of 10 houses was dead.

Landscape of Alaska.
The inhospitable conditions of Alaska did not serve to rid a large part of its population of the pandemic.

Those who were still alive were gravely ill and told how their relatives had fainted even as they walked.

It was a repeated image in Alaskan villages.

From some places herds of stray dogs feeding on the bodies of the dead. In some communities, up to 90% of their population has died.

"Escape communities"

However, a few miles from some of the most affected areas of Bristol Bay, a community in a small village called Egegak he escaped completely from the disease.

"It's strange that Egegak was the only city in Bristol Bay that had no problems with the disease," said Naknek Alaska Packing Association superintendent JF Heinbockel in the official report of the outbreak.

Other medical reports indicated that some Egegak only mild symptoms of the disease. Looks like they got lucky.

As the world tried to recover from the global pandemic, stories began to emerge from similar places that had escaped the virus.

There were not many: a handful of remote islands, rural villages, walled homes and some schools were among the places that had not been affected.

But teaching about the survival of these calls "escape communities" this may result very valuable today as health authorities fear the next pandemic of this disease.

The lessons they contain are considered to be as important as the US Department of Defense's Threat Reduction Agency. investigated some of the places in the country that had not been affected by the Spanish flu, hoping to get some clues on how to keep military personnel safe in the future.

Stock photo of some spanish flu survivors.
Many adults died, leaving their orphaned children who had to defend themselves.

In all, the report's authors focused on seven communities that discovered they had escaped the virus, although they said there may be others who did not.

"These communities were basically cloistered," said Howard Markel, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan and one of the authors of the study.

"No one came in and no one left.. Schools were closed and people did not meet. We reached the term & # 39; protection against kidnapping & # 39; to refer to a group of healthy people who are protected against the risk of infection by outsiders. "

The fact that these communities are remote places He also helped protect some sites in 1918.

The US naval base on the island of Yerba Buena, on San Francisco Bay, was only accessible by boat. Its 6,000 residents were confined to the island and no visitors allowed tread on earth

Naknek River, Alaska.
Villages on the Naknek River in Alaska, the sudden arrival of the flu affected them severely.

"The moment you open the door, the virus enters the bodies of the people who access it," says Markel. "The call & # 39; protection against hijacking & # 39; It's good as long as you're doing it. "

"However, the idea that today you can close a modern city or even a university is not very likely, it is extremely expensive and irritating."

Possible immunity

It is not clear why these attempts to delay the arrival of the disease reduced mortality rates in these places. But research has suggested that over time, as the virus has progressed through populations, it has accumulated mutations that naturally reduced your ability to get sick.

Stock photo of Copenhagen in 1918.
The Danish capital, Copenhagen, was one of the cities that escaped the worst effects of the flu in 1918.

Another possibility could be that some populations have acquired a degree of immunity against the pandemic strain.

In Denmark, for example, the pandemic killed "only" 0.2% of the population, while in Australia it was 0.3%. China has also escaped, with relatively few deaths, something attributable to possible immunity within the population.

"This is known as the & # 39; antigen recycling hypothesis & # 39;"says Professor Gerardo Chowell, an epidemiologist at Georgia State University in the United States, who has attempted to recompose the events leading up to the 1918 pandemic.

"In some areas, older people were not so affected because they had some protection they probably got when they were children."

Although the idea is still debated, it offered some clues that could help health experts fight future pandemics. Today, some countries offer annual vaccines against seasonal strains of influenza that may help their populations develop temporary immunity.

According to research by Jodie McVernon, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, this could "provide important protection in the early stages of a new pandemic."

"The more times you get shots, the more exposed you are to the different versions that the virus can adopt, "adds Markel.

Alaskan city in the first half of the 20th century.
Even some of the most isolated settlements in Alaska were infected, often by mail.

But even in places with potential immunity, its inhabitants saw how some of them got sick. This could mean that the virus has also reached these remote locations, but once it has already affected other parts of the world and something more weakened in its incidence.

The luck factor?

Blood tests performed in Alaska, however, have confirmed that some remote populations have never been exposed.

The people in the yupik settlements of Gambell and Savoonga, on the island of San Lorenzo, on the Bering Strait and on the still more remote island of Sao Paulo, further south, not they met traces of antibodies against the 1918 virus, when they took samples in the 1950s.

Although it seems that these places were largely protected only by their geography, other communities have taken steps to isolate themselves with their own hands.

The settlers of Barrow and Wainwright, from northern Alaska, set up armed guards around their villages and travel between the different settlements was banned.

When scientists tested people living in a series of remote settlements in northern Alaska, they found they were also free of antibodies, suggesting they had never been exposed.

Medicine book in the library.
Researchers are looking for clues in the past about how the Spanish flu has affected to prevent possible pandemics in the future.

It seems that many of these villages they were warned before the virus which was approaching as it spread through Alaska.

"Some places have been notified," says Nicole Braem, cultural anthropologist at the Bering Land Bridge National Reserve, part of the US National Parks Service.

"Numerous settlements in Alaska were not affected, largely because of the quarantines established along the travel routes or because of their remoteness.Communities at that time were very self-sufficient for food and clothing. places in the United States [en comparación con los de hoy] "

In the modern world, settlements like this would be much more difficult. Few places now depend not on goods brought from another part of the world.

Australian port of Hobart.
The Australian state of Hobart instituted a strict quarantine and suffered very few deaths.

Transport networks also mean that many places are no longer remote.

"In 1918 they had very little idea about the virus or the cause of the pandemic," says Howard Markel.

"Today we would know better how to deal with it: we have antivirals, hospitals with intensive care units, respirators and many more systems of control, monitoring and surveillance, but we travel faster and faster than ever, so the spread can be much faster of what we could do. "

There were also some communities in 1918 that escaped the virus against all odds.

The 737 people who live in the town of Fletcher, Vermont (USA), challenged the council to avoid contact with the outside world, organize a dance and attend a city fair in a nearby town.

The city even organized a wedding for a soldier from a military camp in Massachusetts, which saw 28 percent of its population affected by the disease and suffered 757 deaths in the same month that the marriage occurred.

Despite the 120 guests who attended the link, it was as if the residents of Fletcher had dodged a bullet.

And this good fortune It is perhaps the greatest lesson that fugitive communities of 1918 have to offer today's health workers. Many communities that have implemented strict protection and quarantine measures have also been victims of the pandemic.

"Even if they knew about the flu and did their best to keep it from coming, it came anyway," says Katherine Ringsmuth, a historian. "The disease struck so quickly that most people did not have the opportunity to respond."

A drop in salmon stocks could have helped the village of Egegak. "It was a terrible year for salmon, as they were producing so much salmon canned for the war in Europe that caused the decline in fish numbers," Ringsmuth believes.

"Given these circumstances, it may simply be that no one has had any reason to visit the area," the academic theorizes.

Survival, it seems, can sometimes be reduced to blind luck.


This article was originally published in English for BBC Future and you can read it here.


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