The sudden scare over swine flu may turn out to be only a scare for most Americans but deserves our serious attention anyway.
About 36,000 Americans die each year from flu and its complications. So the fact that several dozen flu victims have succumbed in Mexico City in recent days is personally tragic but might not even make the local news were it not for this being a new strain. As such, those it kills tend to be healthy young adults rather than the already sick and vulnerable.
It is not especially shocking that this new flu first developed in pigs. As it happens, similar influenza viruses infect pigs, poultry and people. Flu fairly routinely incubates in pigs and/or chickens and ducks before getting passed onto humans. Sometimes, it develops the ability to efficiently pass from one person to another, and sometimes not.
Scientists have noted that roughly three times per century, a fresh new kind of flu comes swinging out of the animal kingdom and causes what is called a pandemic. Whereas an epidemic might sicken a noticeable number of citizens in a town or a state, a pandemic can encompass a continent or even the entire world. The last flu pandemic, a mild one, killed more than 30,000 Americans in 1968. By some calculations, we're overdue for another.
There is quite a bit of good news. Since the last really bad pandemic hit in 1918 - the so-called Spanish flu - incredible advances have been made in antibiotics, antiviral medications, respirators and public-health monitoring and management. In 1918 and 1919, many flu victims died of secondary infections - opportunistic illnesses like pneumonia that take advantage of patients' weakened conditions. Now, when caught in time, there are good treatments for such infections.
It's also good news that we have been preparing for a flu pandemic for at least half a dozen years, since the H5N1 bird flu began killing a few people mostly in Southeast Asia. H5N1 has so far failed to achieve the genetic changes that would make it easily transmissible from one human to another. But in the meantime, governments around the world have been laying in stocks of antivirals and practicing their response to the flu threat.
Although no immunization will be commonly available for the new swine flu strain for several months, there are other things we can do to protect ourselves. Follow your mom's advice - wash your hands thoroughly after being out in public. Avoid rubbing your eyes, nose and mouth - these are where germs frequently enter. Stay home if you're sick. Cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm.
A big flu outbreak can take years to work its way through the population, during which time, maybe four out of five people won't get sick at all and 98 percent of those who do will recover. It wouldn't be surprising if this flu faded during the warm summer months and then returned with greater strength the following winter. That was the national pattern with the Spanish flu, which reaped 40 million lives worldwide in distinct waves.
Here on the Peninsula, flu showed up in October 1918. Fort Canby army base at Cape Disappointment was placed under strict quarantine. Soon afterward, all churches, schools, dance halls, pool halls, theaters and other public gathering places were shuttered. The use of six-ply gauze masks was mandatory in the entire state of Washington that month.
But by November 1918, residents here were congratulating themselves for getting off so lightly, chalking it up to the health benefits of cranberries. In July 1919, the flu returned with a fury and lasted through the year, before burning out by January 1920. There's no easy way to tally-up total Spanish flu deaths in Pacific County, but if nationwide patterns held true here, mortality may have been as high as 60 out of a total population of something less than 15,000.
A couple of letters I have from 1919 hint at the flu's macabre ripples in this general vicinity. In one, the mayor of Seaside writes Clatsop County Judge T. Cornelius of "a woman Mrs. Wholer living close to the old rock crusher that is in poor condition. She has no money at all. ... She said her sister living in Idaho has been sending money until the last six weeks and at that time was very sick with the flu. Says she can't hear from her sister at all... ."
In another, the city of Warrenton asks Cornelius to intervene in stopping school children from "interfering with the body" in a washed-out grave. "I have not personally seen the gruesome sight but believe there is no doubt of the existence of the condition." Clearly, awareness of the fragility of life was close to the surface in those frightening times.
We'll get through this, just as we always have in the past.
Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.