Did a Virus in Horse Manure Launch the 1918 Influenza Epidemic?

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by Fran Jurga | 13 Ocotber 2009 | The Jurga Report at Equisearch.com

H1N1 virus actually contains a cluster of genetic fragments from both European and Asian pigs, as well as from humans. (CDC photo)

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Everyone's talking about the flu. H1N1 is in the news and today I even saw a public health poster warning about it plastered inside the train where I was riding. Is it my imagination or am I washing my hands more regularly?

Every once in a while you hear someone quote some scary statistics about the Great Influenza of 1918, when 600,000 Americans died from the flu, and one in every four people was taken ill. Most of the nation's medical power was busy with the US troops in France fighting World War I, and the science of public health had barely been born.

Where did that disease outbreak begin? There are many theories, but this one is the most often told, though never proven.

Fort Riley, Kansas was the epicenter of the US Cavalry and contained a unit called Camp Funston. Thousands of horses and more than 50,000 soldiers at a time were both sent there to prepare for war. It was a universe dedicated to conducting war on horseback, and teaching the skills of horsemanship, from veterinary science to farriery to harness-making and saddlery. Polo was played with a vengeance. You would have found the future General George Patton there playing polo and showjumping on the weekends.

On March 9, 1918 a huge dust storm rolled across the plains toward Fort Riley. The regular daily manure burning operation was going on when it hit; Fort Riley's horses produced hundreds of tons of manure a week and the Army's way of disposing of it was incineration.

According to a historical account from the PBS American Experience documentary Influenza 1918, "The dust, combining with the ash of burning manure, kicked up a stinging, stinking yellow haze. The sun was said to have gone dead black in Kansas that day." Trains had to halt on the tracks.

Fort Riley was covered in soot and ash. Men were assigned to clean up the mess, but they did not know to wear masks.

On the morning of March 11, cook Albert Gitchell reported to the infirmary. By that afternoon, more than 100 others had joined him. The flu ripped through the camp. Of course, soldiers and horses were shipping out for other camps all over the USA and on to ships that would take them to fight in France.

Many soldiers died of the flu on crowded troop ships headed to Europe. By April--just three weeks after the camp cook became ill at Fort Riley--the flu started to hit soldiers fighting in France.

For military security reasons, the epidemic in Europe was not publicized.

What was in the manure that was burning? We'll never know. It is possible that the horses had some type of virus or that a mutation of a virus occurred. Medical historians believe that the manure might have contained orthomyxovirus. Since many of the recruits were from cities, they did not have natural immunities to horse ailments. Much, much later, a definitive link was made to isolated amino acids in the virus genes, and they showed a common link to horses, according to most sources, although some are dubious that Fort Riley was the lone source of the virus.

A mutation is exactly what people are afraid of for H1N1.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are constantly monitoring the virus as it spreads," says John Tudor, Ph.D., a microbiologist at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, in a news release, "but there is no way to predict where, when or if mutation will occur."

Scientists do know how the virus can mutate. "The mutation, or antigenic shift, would occur in a cell when it is infected with two different strains of the H1N1 virus," says Tudor. "When this happens, a re-assortment of genetic information may end up in a single virus particle, making a new strain, which may be more or less virulent than the original."

Though known as "swine" flu, Tudor notes this may be a misnomer. "Analysis of the genome indicates it contains genetic fragments from Asian and European pigs as well as birds and humans of unknown source. Since the origin of the genetic elements came from four sources, it's called a quadruple re-assortment virus."

I don't suppose that makes anyone feel any better. Just remember those three little words we all like to hear at times like this: "Get well soon!"