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Monday, April 27, 2009

My Lesson About a Pandemic

I often post my age as "nine years older than God" but actually I did not exist at the time of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemenic. I was born and reared rurally on the flat coastal plain bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Country born and country reared, I knew little of city life at that stage of my life. But I was country wise and capable of safely navigating the woods and country areas.

One year I went to the central Texas Hill Country to spend the summer and one school semester with my maternal grand parents at their farm, their first retirement home. The hills were rocky and heavily wooded; the area was sparsely settled and small villages were few and far between. Attending school required about a 20 0r 25 mile bus ride to the nearest real town. I spent happy days horseback riding or roaming the hills with a small .22 rifle and our big dog. Those days were an education in themselves, sometimes quiet and uneventful, sometimes filled with exciting discoveries.

I chanced upon an old abandoned cemetery with tombstones dating back into the previous century and probably back to the time of the early settlers to that part of Texas. Some of the tombstones were professionally made but some were merely slabs of flat rock that someone had chiseled names and dates into them. Some were so old and weathered that the inscriptions were not discernible. The cemetery was overgrown with hard scrabble weeds and some of the tombstones were leaning precipitously. I felt sorry for the little neglected piece of history and began hauling a shovel, hoe and rake up there to do cleanup. I enjoyed the hot, sweaty labor and had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment as I finally surveyed the clean, neat cemetery.

I noted that a disproportionate number of the stones were death dated in 1918 or 1919. Even though history says that the hardest hit by the pandemic were young adults, people of all ages succumbed to the disease. There were many graves of babies and children. The area was sparsely settled at my time and I knew the population had to be even smaller and more isolated in the 1900s. So why so many deaths at one time? [ Even in the census of 2007, the population of Belton, the largest town to which country children were bussed to school,was only17,330.]

I was aware of death; death by disease - whooping cough, diptheria, even measles (one of my uncles almost died in a measles epidemic (NOT pandemic) that scourged the countryside when I was a child); death by accidents - drownings, farm accidents, bull goring, snake bites, infections, etc.. But I had no knowledge of mass deaths outside of war. I asked my Grandmother about so many, many deaths in 1918-1919. As was the wont of old people back then, she began with, "well, Honey, back in nineteen and eighteen..." and she told me about the terrible number of people who perished in the influenza pandemenic. I knew of how a disease could flash through the countryside as in the measles epidemic, but such losses as in a pandemic was incomprehensible to me.

Also I puzzled over how the disease was transmitted so readily, especially in a population so sparse and scattered back in the Texas Hill Country in that era. In 1918 the town was scarcely more than a village. ["Belton was founded in 1850, and in early years grew as a rustic trading center for nearby farms and ranches. The first merchant sold goods from his wagon before any stores were built; first “saloon” was a barrel of whiskey and a tin cup under a shade tree. A stagecoach line served the village, and cowboys herding longhorns up to the Chisholm Trail enjoyed rest stops in Belton."] One source of contagion may have been the children bussed to the town school where they became infected. Country men (and rarely the women) might go to town a few times a month via horse and wagon where they would be exposed to large number of people, many from outside the area; all could bring contagion with them. And ofcourse, members of the little hill country churches congregated on Sundays and other days of worship and social events, passing the disease around. The Influenza virus was virulent and easily transmitted as witnessed by the number of dead in an isolated part of the country with a low number of population.

If a pandemic arises today, just think of the contagion in today's multi-thousand or million population cities and the number of people entering and leaving every day. Schools can be closed, sporting events, movie houses and other places where people tend to congregate can be closed. But still, people have to work in order to draw paychecks to live on. Foodstuffs and supplies must be purchased. We can't barricade ourselves in an ivory tower.

Mexico is hardest hit so far. It isn't mentioned in the news yet (that I have heard) but can we discount the possibility of frightened Mexicans fleeing their country to United States to take refuge with family or friends here --and bringing the virus with them? It is human nature to flee danger and to try to protect their families. We feel compassion for them but can we risk possible contagion? Also, other illegal immigrants from further south must pass through Mexico to enter our country -- and pick up the virus on their way down and bring it to us?

This is a serious danger to our people and to the nation. Everyone should read and heed the advice disseminated by the CDC and the government. Be as safe as possible and hope this threat fizzles out like the Bird Flu did.

Article below in next post.

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