Let the Series begin!

Steve Kistulentz will be here on Thursday.. “Let the Series begin!” is published by Claudia Barnett in In Process.


A Real Halloween Story from the Far Corners of Alaska

Many graves in this small cemetery for the “Pioneers of Alaska” are marked with death dates between 1919–1920. So many so that it peaked my curiosity and I had to find out why. Turns out — it was the Spanish Flu, the deadliest pandemic in modern history that no one knows about, and it hit Alaska particularly hard.

The Spanish Flu infected 500 million people and killed 50 to 100 million around the world or 3–5 percent of the population at the time. Life expectancy in the United States alone dropped by about 12 years.
There are many theories about where the outbreak started and these theories are still debated until this day. Although the outbreak began in 1918, the virus didn’t hit remote parts of Alaska until 1919 and 1920. Alaskan communities, specifically native communities, were entirely wiped out. Some Inuit communities never recovered from the Spanish Flu pandemic. Nenana, where this cemetery is located, is said to have lost 40–50% of its native population. Brevig Mission lost 90% of its Inuit population. It’s difficult to conclude an exact number of people who died from the Spanish Flu in Alaska because the consensus bureau wasn’t equipped to reach remote villages in the former US territory.

This influenza was particularly odd, not because it was so lethal, but because it affected healthy, young people. Usually the flu attacks very young children and older people with poor immune systems. When the Spanish Flu hit Alaska, it spread during the winter. So many people died that no one was left to keep the fires going and thousands froze to death before help arrived. Rescuers found children in the same room as their decomposing parents. Many people starved to death because they couldn’t hunt for food in the winter.

There were bodies everywhere. So most flu victims were buried in mass graves created by blasting steam into the permafrost. For centuries, this was a widely popular way to bury the dead in cold places. But now, those layers of permafrost are melting. In 2011, a research group extracted the virus from one of these melting mass graves in Alaska. Last year, a young boy died and 90 people were hospitalized during an anthrax breakout in a remote Russian area. The virus was linked to a frozen reindeer carcass that was exposed by melting permafrost.

Although the public has, for some reason, forgotten about the Spanish flu, scientists have not. There are scores of research groups around the world currently studying the virus in hopes of defeating future H1N1 strains like it. Many of the bodies that have been exhumed for scientific research have come from victims preserved in Alaskan permafrost. Happy Halloween!

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