The Novel Cronavirus outbreak in China, which seems to be rapidly spreading all over the world, is threatening to remove politics from the national headlines.
The pangolin, or scaled anteater, has been named as a possible source of the Novel Coronavirus now afflicting thousands of people all over the world.
From what I’ve read, the disease mutated enough to jump from a wild animal—possibly the scaly anteater, also called the pangolin—to humans in China, where it’s a popular dish. It then proceeded to evolve even further and more quickly to enable it to jump from human to human.
As of Saturday morning when I’m writing this, Cronavirus has popped up in 27 other nations besides China. And the first U.S. citizen, a resident of China, has died from the disease, along with more than 700 Chinese—including the doctor who first identified the new virus. More than 37,000 people have been afflicted with the disease in China, along with thousands more all over the world.
As visitors flee China, some carrying the virus with them, the disease is threatening to become a true pandemic. It appears to pose a much more serious threat than the recent outbreaks of Ebola, although as of today, more people die annually of the flu in the U.S. than have contracted the Coronavirus in China. World health experts are frantically working on vaccines for the new killer, although even if they find one, only time will tell whether that would be effective. After all, the anti-vaccination craze seems to be causing mini epidemics of once-rare childhood diseases like whooping cough and even polio.
But looking back in our own history, there are effective methods of dealing with communicable diseases—it’s just that some people might not be enthusiastic supporters.
Back in the days of our great and great-grandparents, there were a whole host of deadly diseases for which there were no cures. How did they cope? Quarantine was the main public health weapon against everything from scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, and smallpox among people, to virulent animal diseases like hoof and mouth disease.
Over in China, 50 million people are subject to quarantine in an effort to stop the spread of Coronavirus, and other nearby countries are rapidly following suit. Whether it will work, though, is anybody’s guess. For instance, Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, has a larger population than New York City, and is now under strict quarantine. It’s hard to imagine New York City living under a quarantine like that.
Here in Kendall County, one of the first references to quarantine of any kind I was able to locate appeared in the July 24, 1879 Kendall County Record. Editor and publisher John R. Marshall reported on Illinois’ reaction to the on-going Memphis, Tenn. yellow fever epidemic. “No steamers from below [downstream] are allowed to land at Cairo; the city is in strict quarantine against yellow fever,” he reported.
For county residents, I found quarantine first mentioned in a March 3, 1886 Record note when correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported from Oswego: “One of Kilbourne’s little girls became affected with the scarlet fever, a very mild case, however, the early part of last week. The family are boarders at Mrs. Teller’s, and that house has been somewhat quarantined. Miss Cox, one of our teachers, who also boarded there, for the reason of precaution immediately changed her place to Mrs. Moore’s.”
One of the major problems in those years was that people really didn’t understand how highly infectious diseases spread, although by the late 1800s and early 1900s, medical advances were coming. Dread diseases like smallpox were no longer quite so fearsome because vaccination had been around for so long.
In the late 1840s, James Sheldon Barber, who had arrived in Oswego in 1843, but who was then living over in Lockport, noted in an April 1845 letter to his parents back in Smyrna, N.Y. that a smallpox epidemic was sweeping through Oswego. He wrote that he wanted to go visit friends there, but had wait until he’d been vaccinated and then assured he hadn’t actually gotten the pox. “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vacinated [sic] one week ago Monday and worked tolerably well and I have got over it and now feel perfectly safe,” he wrote.
But as late as the 1890s, smallpox could still spook a community, as Rank reported from Oswego on Jan. 28, 1891: “Oswego has had a scare. A lady who had been making a trip to Chicago and had been suffering from a cold had some kind of a rash breaking out on her. A doctor saw her Saturday and said that whatever it was had not sufficiently developed to be sure about and a little precaution might be in order as it might turn out to be a light case of the varioloid. That was enough. In a very short time ‘We have the small pox!’ was spread all over town and then everybody advised what should be done: The school must be closed; everyone who had been in hailing distance of the patient should be quarantined; the writing and sending of letters should be stopped; some of the invitations to social doings were cancelled; money was received with apprehension; some were afraid to go to church on Sunday; all living things in town should be vaccinated, etc. By Monday, however, it was found that it was only a simple case of eruption and the scare ceased almost as fast as it began.”
People weren’t the only ones susceptible to virulent, contagious diseases fought by quarantine. A little more than a century ago, in 1914, a hoof and mouth epidemic broke out in Kendall County creating near panic. Entire herds of cows and pigs were destroyed and entire farms were quarantined.
Under the headline “Kendall County Cattle Quarantined,” the Record reported in its Nov. 11 issue: “The spread of the dreaded hoof and mouth disease that has been gaining serious proportions in Chicago and vicinity has brought it into Kendall County and up to Monday morning several herds of cattle had been quarantined. This disease has been prevalent in Europe for a number of years, has been noted in the United States but eight times and never before in Illinois. As a result of the visitation nearly all the northern counties of the state have been placed under quarantine, the Chicago stockyards closed and stringent methods have been adopted by the state veterinarian. Where a case is found in a herd of cattle they are segregated, killed, and the bodies either burned or destroyed with quick lime.”
The last major countywide human quarantine was imposed during the misnamed Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918, of course. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called it by the name given it by French doctors: the grippe.
On Jan. 1, 1890, Rank reported from Oswego that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”
Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.
Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. But then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.
Little did area residents know that an extremely deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before. The nationwide outbreak started in the summer as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease.
In Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s Oswego column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”
That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man, while previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly
The very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”
The disease was also hitting all those young recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away. For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”
Sitting at his desk in the Record office, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”
Indeed, the “Oswego” column in the Record’s Oct. 16, 1918 edition reported: “Owing to the quarantine placed recently on public gatherings the lecture that was to have been given in the Presbyterian church is not to be given. Owing to prevailing illness, the Red Cross rooms will not be open this week; also the 19th Century Club will not hold their regular meeting.”
Quarantine continued to be a major public health tool to fight scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and polio right up through the middle of the 20th century, with Oswego first grader Dwight Foster being the last student I’ve found, so far, quarantined for scarlet fever in March 1950.
Perhaps with communicable diseases making a frequent comeback, quarantine will make one, too. And on the good side of things, perhaps seeing those red “Quarantine!” signs tacked up on their homes might cause some parents to see vaccination in a different light.