I received an interesting e-mail from a reader with a link to a short, on-line article by Casey Johnston entitled “Much slower travel couldn’t contain influenza even in 1889″ . This article looks at the Russian flu pandemic (aka Asiatic flu) that predates the Spanish flu of 1918; once I read the article, I wanted to know more.
The article discussed conclusions drawn by Russian scientists based on new data gathered on an influenza pandemic that started in 1889. The scientists were able to follow the spread of the virus across the globe using medical records from various European armies. These records indicate that the virus spread at an amazing rate, moving from Russia, through Europe and over to North America in only 4 months. In other words, the Russian scientists found that “the virus was able to spread rapidly across the ocean despite the limited travel of that era” and “despite much slower travel in the 19th century, the flu was able to spread almost as quickly as it can today, suggesting that there is a trade-off related to how quickly people move around. Someone carrying the virus can infect fewer people in many places, or many people in fewer places; either way, the virus spreads at more or less the same rate” . Extrapolating from this new data, the Russian scientists in turn concluded that the public health measures we use today should be refocused. “To contain influenza, researchers suggest that we would do better to tailor our methods to the population profile of individual cities, rather than trying to lock them down” .
This conclusion was reinforced by a second article I found that discusses the work of French epidemiologist Alain-Jacques Valleron from the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in Paris. In this related article by A. Madrigal entitled “1889 Pandemic Didn’t Need Planes to Circle the Globe in 4 Months” , Valleron concluded that “[t]he rapid progression of the 1889 pandemic demonstrates that slower surface travel, even with much smaller traveler flows, sufficed to spread the pandemic across all of Europe and the United States in ~4 months…” “This observation supports mathematical model results, which anticipated that restricting air transportation would have little, if any, effect. One possible hypothesis is that the important predictor of the speed of the pandemic is not the absolute numbers of passengers traveling between cities but the connectedness of the network of cities…. The French researchers found that the mortality of the 1889 pandemic was about the same as the flu outbreaks of 1947, 1957, 1968, and 1977-1978, and (so far) 2009-2010…” .
I then read the comments section under Mr. Johnston’s article. I was especially interested in a couple of comments about the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and its possible contribution to the spread of the Russian pandemic. The possibility intrigued me, so I looked in to this as well…..
In 1889, Oklahoma opened a large area of land for settlement on a first-come, first-serve basis. Each settler could claim up to 160 acres and then receive title to the property if they lived on the land and improved it significantly . People from all over America, Russia and Europe gathered at the Kansas border to claim land in Oklahoma. The rush started on the 22nd of April, 1889 “…at high noon…, with an estimated 50,000 people lined up for their piece of the available two million acres (8,000 km²)”  .
I wanted to know if there really was a correlation between the land rush and the wide spread of the flu. Searching the web, I came across the Classic Encyclopedia which republishes earlier data, in this case information from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. According to this source, “only 55 deaths were ascribed to this cause (Influenza)” in the winter of 1888-1889  . Reading further, I found a study by Dr H. Franklin Parsons compiled at the time of the pandemic. He wrote a detailed account of the impact of the Russian flu and how it spread throughout the world. According to Dr. Parsons, the onset of the Russian pandemic occurred in May of 1889, appearing simultaneously in three locations: in Bokhara in Central Asia, in Athabasca in the north-west Territories of Canada and in Greenland . It seems from Parsons’ work that the flu actually did not reach the USA until later in December 1889  so the land rush could not be associated with the spread of the Russian pandemic.
I was still curious about the pandemic – I wanted to find out what type of influenza it was. Mr. Johnston’s description of the Russian flu and its mortality rates  reminded me of our current pandemic, so I wondered — could the 1889 flu have been A/H1N1 ? Researching this theory, I found an article entitled “The Last Great Uncontrolled Plague of Mankind”  that states that the virus responsible for the Russian Flu Pandemic was likely Influenza A/H2N8, a type of human influenza with a very high attack and mortality rate . This strain of the virus has killed at least 250,000 in Western Europe and about two to three times that number around the world  . The evidence is, however, not conclusive and there is also speculation that the 1889 strain could have been A/H2N2 .
I highly recommend that you read Johnston’s article “Much slower travel couldn’t contain influenza even in 1889”, Madrigal’s article “1889 Pandemic Didn’t Need Planes to Circle the Globe in 4 Months”, as well as the reader comments and my other references. The data from the spread of the 1889 pandemic suggests that we need to look at different ways to curb the spread of pandemics and that the strong quarantine measures currently in use may be ineffectual. These studies of the Russian pandemic also peaked my curiosity and served as a starting point for me to look into other aspects of influenza. Maybe you will read something here that will start you on your own quest.
 Johnston, C. Much slower travel couldn’t contain influenza even in 1889 (28 Apr 2010) Ars Technica Science News. (On-line) Available: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2010/04/much-slower-travel-couldnt-contain-influenza-even-in-1889.ars?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rss. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 Ibid. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 Ibid. Cited 2010 June 02.
 Johnston, C. 1889 Pandemic Didn’t Need Planes to Circle the Globe in 4 Months (26 Apr 2010), Wired Science. (On-line) Available: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/04/1889-russian-flu-pandemic/. Cited 2010 June 02.
 Ibid. Cited 2010 June 02.
 Land Run of 1889 (2010) Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (On-line) Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Run_of_1889. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 Land Run of 1889 (2010) Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (On-line) Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Run_of_1889. Cited 2010 Apr 29
 On This Day, April 22, 1889, The New York Times. (On-line) Available: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0422.html#article. Cited 2010 May 31.
 Influenza (2006) 11th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica pub. 1911, Classic Encyclopedia. (On-line) Available: http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Influenza. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 Ibid. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 “While the infection speeds were the same and the mortality rates were different, that says nothing about the total amount of people affected or the length of proliferation. The 1918 pandemic infected 500 million and killed 50 million. The 1889 pandemic only infected 50 million people…(About 1 million people died during the Russian flu pandemic )… So while there were fewer deaths, there were also far fewer opportunities for death..”
from: Johnston, C. Much slower travel couldn’t contain influenza even in 1889 (28 Apr 2010) Ars Technica Science News. (On-line) Available: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2010/04/much-slower-travel-couldnt-contain-influenza-even-in-1889.ars?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rss. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 Garmaroudi, F.S. The Last Great Uncontrolled Plague of Mankind (2009) The Science Creative Quarterly. (On-line) Available: http://www.scq.ubc.ca/the-last-great-uncontrolled-plaque-of-mankind/. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 Ibid. Cited 2010 Apr 29.
 The Worst Outbreaks of Disease (2009) Epic Disasters. (On-line) Available: http://www.epicdisasters.com/index.php/site/comments/the_worst_outbreaks_of_disease/. Cited 2010 May 06.
 Epidemics and Pandemics (2010) Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness & Promotion. (On-line) Available: http://www.immunize.cpha.ca/en/specific-groups/childactivities/influenza/epi.aspx. Cited 2010 May 06.
 Influenza A virus subtype H2N2, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (On-line) Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza_A_virus_subtype_H2N2. Cited 2010 June 01.