Spanish Influenza

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The Spanish influenza plagued Alaska from 1918 through 1919. The origin of the illness is unknown, but thought to be caused by the overcrowding in many army boot-camps or in the crowded trenches on the battlefields. This deadly strain of influenza was known to cause death in as little as 48 hours, and left thousands in Alaska dead. The first cases were reported in October 1918 and by Halloween there were 200 cases in Ketchikan. Many smaller communities had few medically trained people like nurses or doctors. As a result, other public employees like school teachers and town officials worked medical care alongside volunteers. This was the case in Nome.

The spread of the epidemic was rapid. By mid-November, Ketchikan had recorded 7 deaths and an increase to 336 cases. Due to their lack of immunity to illnesses, the impact on Alaska Natives was more significant. Other communities reported outbreaks, with 98 in Sitka and 250 others in Hydaburg. While the drop in population included thousands of unfortunate people, the numbers were devastating to populations of Eskimos living in the areas around Nome. It is estimated that 75% of the adult Eskimos in Nome died from the illness. Over 950 Eskimos died in the areas around Nome. Bristol Bay appeared to have been spared from the effects of the epidemic until the spring of 1919 when the fishing fleets arrived. Between Bristol Bay and Unalaska, 238 orphans remained as the primary Aleut population as a result of the disease’s destruction on the adult Aleuts. The total deaths in Alaska range between 2000 and 3000 with more than 500 children orphaned.

I am surprised that the epidemic did not kill as many children as adults. Usually the adults are better able to fight off sickness. I think it would be difficult to live in a village or other small town with limited medical knowledge or help. It is sad to think about the infants that were found with their dead mothers and the orphans left alone. I was glad...
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