Perhaps one of the best presentations at the International Swine Flu Conference was delivered by Scott Sproul, chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Service for the Oklahoma Department of Health. Sproul recapped how Oklahoma City dealt with the 1918 Spanish flu, which contained genetic elements similar to the present avian flu, itself a recombinant genetic part of A/H1N1.
Sproul went back through historical records in Oklahoma City to discover that the city reacted in similar ways to how A/H1N1 has been treated by some officials and media today.
The 1918 flu affected mostly the young and middle-aged instead of the very young and very old. When cases of flu were first reported in Oklahoma City, even as the pandemic had reached Boston, New York, and Philadelphia from U,S. doughboys returning from World War I battlefields in Europe, city officials dismissed the cases as “hay fever.”
The city officials miscalculated. By October 1, 5,000 people in Oklahoma City had contracted the flu with all beds at the city’s Emergency Hospital full of patients. In addition, almost all the nurses at the hospital had fallen ill.
On October 2, the first two flu deaths occurred in Oklahoma City at a downtown hotel. The local economy began to disintegrate and more nurses, as well as doctors, falling ill. The main source of pharmaceuticals, the Alexander Drug Store Company, reported all of its employees as ill with the flu. <>The U.S. Food Administration in Oklahoma City was unable to continue its work<><>. Making matters worse, almost all the employees of the Pioneer Telephone Company became sick and because of the infectious nature of the flu, Western Union had only a few employees who were willing to deliver messages.
On October 4, city officials determined that quarantines were unnecessary and that most of the cases being reported were just “bad colds” and no pandemic situation existed. That was the situation until Mayor Ed Overholser got the flu along with Oklahoma City Commissioner Jack Walton.
Immediately, the city began to take action. Carnegie Library was made the central location for flu response. The city officials ordered all public places closed. As deaths climbed to 15 to 40 per day, newsboys were limited to one per city block.
American Red Cross workers discovered the situation among the city’s poor was much worse. After the city was so slow to react, the American Red Cross assumed more and more responsibility for emergency response. A 100-bed “detention hospital” was opened and rooming houses were commandeered for use as quarantine hospitals. All essential emergency services were handed over by Commissioner Walton to the Red Cross.
Soon, city churches were opened up as care facilities. By October 23, the crisis began to subside. On November 9, the ban on public gatherings was lifted in time for the city to celebrate Germany’s surrender. In all, 100,000 people in Oklahoma City became infected with the flu and 7,500 died.
There are some lessons learned in Oklahoma City that were not heeded by present-day officials. For example, U.S. news media initially stated that the A/H1N1 threat may be hyped, similar to the initial reaction of Oklahoma’s city fathers. City officials also initially undercounted the number of flu cases.
WMR has learned that a number of countries are presently undercounting A/H1N1 cases, including Indonesia, China, and Georgia. In addition, health insurance industry sources report to us that China is also undercounting the number of people who contracted the highly infectious and almost always-fatal pneumonic plague, originally reported in Ziketan village in Qinghai province, western China. After three people in the village reportedly died from the plague, WMR’s sources report that some Chinese emergency response officials, at first, considered napalming the entire village of 10,000 in an attempt to eradicate the plague. However, that idea was overruled by more senior government officials in Beijing.