LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Are plagues things of the past?

Imagine an America decimated by disease, where often there were not enough healthy survivors to bury those who had succumbed.. It is not “The Walking Dead” or science fiction, it happened here, in 1918, 100 years ago, and was called “Swine Flu.”

Sometimes novels can draw a better picture than historians of past events. In “The Doctor’s Son,” John O’Hara wrote about this epidemic, when small town America strangers were driven away, and doctors, fearing for their own health, fled rather than care for the sick.

We readily this year acknowledge other anniversaries, such as the end of World War I and the Tet Offensive, but ignore an event which caused more world-wide deaths than the both above events combined. Perhaps we are reluctant to face, even today, the horror and mystery of a plague.

Few American families of that time were unaffected by this world-wide phenomenon. I didn’t know any victims, but on our family yearly when I was young visited the graves of family members who died in the wars we visited others affected by the epidemic. I remember being impressed with how young many of the victims were.

And our state was also affected. A recent “This Day in Delaware History” citation in this paper noted on Oct. 10 that “Today alone 24 people died from Swine Flu in Wilmington” and that “the city had run out of coffins.”

Can it happen again? Perhaps. The former Soviet Union, for example, had massive stockpiles of biological weapons, and it is believed to be very possible that when that nation collapsed, some rogue nations and terrorist groups were able to acquire some of them.

Modernity of course cuts both ways. People are far more mobile today. “West Nile Virus” and “Ebola” and other diseases might in the past never have affected a global audience before the era of modern transportation. On the other hand, today’s research, knowledge base and medicine were hardy available to those suffering in 1918, or earlier to an even worse disease, the “Black Plague.”

Are such massive epidemics a thing of the past? Albert Camus once said “There have been as many plagues as war in history, yet plagues and war comes equally to people as a surprise.” Only time will tell. (On Thursday, Oct. 18 at 4 p.m., the Dover Library’s History Book Club will be on “Plagues, Epidemics and Biological Warfare. What measures are in place in Kent County to protect people? All are invited. Join “The best Talk in Dover.”)

Larry Koch


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