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Letter to the Editor: A history lesson in infectious disease
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Letter to the Editor: A history lesson in infectious disease

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I recently came across an old newspaper from 1918 with an interesting article about the Spanish influenza that seems relevant to today’s situation.

The article was on the front page of the Cherokee Scout, a weekly newspaper published in Murphy, Cherokee County, N.C. on November 22, 1918. It was written by H. J. Tilson, Cherokee County Quarantine Officer.

Some of the medical concepts referenced in this article have changed, but the central theme remains the same.

Article Title: “Why in the World Don’t People Listen to Reason?”

“Influenza in spite of the good, old time remedies of sulphur in the shoes and asafoetida around the neck, like a hurricane passed from the seashore to the mountains, from household to household exacting it’s toll, paying no respect to persons. When the final count of the present epidemic is made known, we will probably see that more than 6,000 (actually 13,700) North Carolinians have laid down there lives on account of it.

The germs which cause influenza, like the germs which cause whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, colds, pneumonia and many other diseases, live in the mouth and nose secretions of people. These germs die in the air just as soon as the secretions dry, and therefore they can not live long to float about as some of the sulphur and asafoetida fiends might think. One gets the disease by coming in too close contact with careless people.

The germs of every case of influenza came from another person’s mouth, and the present epidemic show to what spit swapping is practiced in the good old North State. Not every person who has influenza is careless, but every case of influenza means carelessness by somebody; and one can’t always guard himself against the other fellow.

There are several institutions in North Carolina in which not a case of influenza occurred, and still the disease was epidemic on every side. There was nothing magic about it. The students in those institutions did not wear sulphur in their shoes, asafoetida in their bosoms, cucumbers on their ankles, or potatoes in their pockets; but what they did was use separate towels, dishes, and drinking cups, and kept their mouths covered when coughing and sneezing. They stayed away from public gatherings of all sorts, but were permitted on the streets, even when ambulances were frequently passing with patients for the influenza emergency hospitals. These students lived a normal life, happy and jubilant. They did not breathe filtered air, nor drink concoctions of native herbs, but used common sense — and why in the world people don’t listen to reason is not understood.”

 

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