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Scientists learn history of Spanish Flu at Fort Riley

By Season Osterfeld | 1ST INF. DIV. POST | May 19, 2017

     More than 25 scientists from around the globe visited Fort Riley May 10 to hear the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak at the installation and tour the museums.

     The scientists were in Manhattan, Kansas, May 7 to 10 for the 8th In­ternational Conference on Emerging Zoonosis hosted by staff of Kansas State University. The conference is held every three years and consists of an interdisciplinary forum of physi­cians, veterinarians, epidemiologists, immunologists, virologists, microbi­ologists, public health experts and oth­ers. During the event, the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans and the economic impact of transboundary diseases were discussion topics.

     With the assistance of retired Lt. Col. Arthur DeGroat, director of mili­tary affairs at Kansas State University, and Capt. Jamie Pecha, 1st Infantry Division preventive medicine officer, the international scientists received the history of the H1N1 Influenza, or Spanish Flu, that struck Fort Riley and spread across the world in 1918.

     Fort Riley is believed to be the ori­gin of the world-wide epidemic that killed millions, said Robert Smith, di­rector of the museum division at Fort Riley.

     “It was probably the greatest pan­demic the world has ever seen,” he said. “They (researchers) think it killed be­tween 2 and 4 percent of the world’s population. It was even greater than the bubonic plague back in the 14th century.”

     Over lunch at Demon Dining Fa­cility, Smith presented the history of the Spanish Flu at Fort Riley, as well as background on the installation and liv­ing conditions of Soldiers at that time. With a smirk, Smith told the scientists that patient zero was an Army cook named Albert Gitchell.

     “They thought it mutated from pigs and then infected some Soldiers, some draftees, from Pascal County, Kansas, and they came here to train at Fort Riley and then the first recorded flu case here was a cook of all people,” he said.

     Stephanie Hober, grant specialist, Kansas State University Center of Ex­cellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, said the tour and his­tory were enjoyable and gave the group local background information on an epidemic several have studied.

     “They’re getting to see the histori­cal significance of Fort Riley in the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the impact it had on the surrounding area here in the time it happened and the advances they’ve made since that time,” she said.

     Understanding the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu and how it spread through a military installation, across the nation and internationally helps scientists develop a larger picture on how viruses and diseases transform into pandemics and on to epidemics, said conference co-host Dr. Jürgen Richt, from Kansas State University’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases.

     “It’s history and it’s very good that Fort Riley is a historic place and has a historian who is very able to describe well the history of how from Fort Riley these disease evolved and causes mil­lions and millions of deaths,” Richt said. “It’s very important to have this historical perspective.”

     Richt said the conference gets the scientists and experts communicating across disciplines when they normally would not. They can exchange information and work together to understand, treat and prevent diseases that travel between humans and animals.

     “We have to bring these people together, they often don’t speak,” he said. “The medical doctors don’t speak with the veterinarians and vice versa and we can solve these problems so far. These zoonosis can become epidemics … We have to understand, not only from the human side, but also what’s going on in the animal reservoirs, and only then can we have a clear picture of what the risks are for these diseases to spread and come to our shores and what we need to stockpile now, like (Middle East Respi­ratory Syndrome) vaccines … These are the kinds of ques­tions we have to address and that’s why we bring together epidemiologists, virologists, bacteriologists and so on.”

 

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