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Epidemics In Alaska Go Back A Long Way

Fear Of Epidemics In Alaska Is Nothing New. Ebola, Hantavirus, Diphtheria, Flu, TB, Measles...

News about the flu in the Chitina Leader of 1918.
Epidemics have a long and terrible history in Alaska. Even before westerners entered the territory, their germs went before them -- spreading diseases that had never been seen before. They don't sound like much today: "flu" and "measles," for example. But they were deadly. During the early 1900's, diphtheria threatened Nome -- leading to the great Nome serum run, in which dog mushers who had been mail carriers saved the children of the coastal city. The 1918 flu epidemic was bad enough to stop the trains between Chitina and Kennicott. You can see newspaper stories from the Chitina Leader about the flu epidemic at the Copper Center Museum, and read actual telegrams there that were sent back and forth from local telegraph offices, trying to handle the quarantine, and to get needed medicines to the right people. In November, 1918, someone in Juneau wrote to a Kennicott man: "You may be held at Cordova indefinitely. Influenza... use your own judgement. Travel to Kennicott discontinued." Someone else telegraphed back: "Mail is not fumigated to Cordova..." Someone in Kennicott wrote to a Cordova physician, on December 21st, 1918: "Can you spare us some serum sufficient for 100 people. We will purchase outright or will return same upon arrival Northwestern about 27th." In many ways, the great flu epidemic of 1918 was as terrible as the current Ebola epidemic in Africa. But it was truly worldwide, touching even the remote parts of Alaska. In 1995 (like today) people worried that something -- like the terrible flu -- would come back again. Here's a story from that summer. It's about something called the "hantavirus," which that year had spread to the Yukon Territories, across the border from Alaska. Like the current Ebola virus, it had a huge potential death rate: 60% of the people who got it wound up dead.

From: July 13th, 1995 Copper River Country Journal

ALASKA - A deadly virus that struck an Indian community in the Southwest is very unlikely to be a threat in Alaska -- even though there are reports of the virus existing in deer mice in the Yukon.

  Dr. John Middaugh, of the State Section of Epidemiology, told the Journal that discovery of the hantavirus in the Yukon "is no big deal." A July 7th Associated Press story said that the virus, which is carried by airborne  particles of deer mice excretions, such as urine, droppings, or saliva, has been found in the Canadian province. Around 60% of the people who come down with the flu-like illness, die.

But Alaska's epidemiologists say the problem is "totally overblown." Dr. Middaugh told the Journal that deer mice exist "all over North America." He said the epidemic on an Indian reservation in the southwest was due to specific overpopulation in that area. Although the virus is now understood to affect around 20 to 30 people a year, the conditions that existed in the May, 1993 epidemic were unusual. A huge overpopulation of deer mice arose there because there was a large flood. The flood killed snakes and scorpions -- deer mice's natural enemies -- leaving them to grow, unchecked into extremely high numbers. The number of deer mice grew even more when the floods were followed by good weather, which led to a great abundance of the types of food the mice liked to eat. 

Finally, when the population was huge, due to the lack of predators and the abundance of food, the deer mice began crowding into people's homes. And they followed the classic cycle of overpopulation; they grew sick with the hantavirus. The virus then passed on to the human population.

At this point, Middaugh told the Journal, "There are no documented human illnesses from the hantavirus anywhere in Alaska, the Yukon Territory and Canada." He acted as if there wasn't much possibility that there would be any chance of an epidemic here. Of 569 mice tested in Southeast Alaska for the virus, all were negative.

"What does it mean," he asked. "It's an epidemiological yawn. We're trying to get the word out."

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