Leavitt: We're overdue for a pandemic
This is a very serious matter. I am not talking about a Stephen King novel here. I am talking about what happened in 1918 in this country and across the world. The fact is pandemics happen.
Now, we're concerned today because the H5N1 virus, the virus we're concerned about now, is sweeping across the world on the back of wild birds carrying this virus.
Not only are we concerned because of its broad proliferation, we're concerned because of its genetic character. Using samples that we were able to retrieve in a rather remarkable way, we've been able to use reversed genetics to identify that that virus, the 1918 virus, has great similarity to the H5N1 virus that we now see spread across the world. Should it achieve human-to-human transmissibility, which it has not in a widespread way, it would be an aggressive killer. That's why we're concerned.
So it's important that we begin to talk about it, but it's important also that we not focus entirely on this H5N1 virus because pandemics happen, and if it's not the H5N1 virus, it will be another virus at some point in the in time, and the reality is, because they happen and because we are under prepared, we must begin to think of pandemic preparedness in its larger context, not simply the H5N1 virus.
I've become somewhat of a student in my of the 1918 pandemic. I've begun to focus on what happened around the country. Many of you will have read John Barry's account of the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza. It made me curious to go to my own hometown to find out what happened there. I grew up in a little town in the southwest corner of Utah called Cedar City. In 1918, it had about 3,000 people. There was a doctor there by the name of L.W. MacFarlane. I'm not sure that he was the only physician in town, but he was clearly the most prominent. The mayor had made him head of public health. He wrote a history of his life; a major portion of it was devoted to this event. In the long professional career, this was clearly the most prominent experience he had.
I found his history. You'll be interested in this. He said, "Quite a group had gone from Cedar City to attend a conference and the State Fair in Salt Lake. They returned home bringing unexpected gifts with them. By the time they got back to Cedar City, Mr. and Mrs. Don Coppin and their son Billy and Mrs. James Anderson and their daughter Ethel and Mell Corlett had definitely developed the flu. Before many days," he said, "the influenza swept like a fire through Cedar City and the surrounding communities."
I went to the little weekly newspaper, read every issue from September of that year, 1918, until December, a week after he described the the Iron County Record carried the first recorded death in my hometown, a woman by the name of Mrs. George Foster. She died leaving what the newspaper called "a husband and a little motherless child."