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Lessons from Russian flu pandemic of 1890

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The Great Russian Flu Pandemic of 1890 came in three global waves between 1889 and 1894 (1889–1890, 1890–1891, 1892), with outbreaks of declining severity thereafter, and possibly including the deadly resurgence of flu in early 1900.

Initially reported in the spring of 1889 in the Asian city of Bukhara, then in Russia (now in Uzbekistan), the disease spread rapidly as soon as it reached shipping and rail lines. In November 1889 the disease hit Moscow, Kiev, and Saint Petersburg. In December, Germany, France, Great Britain and even the United States had cases.

By early January, influenza — also called catarrh or grippe — was epidemic in Montana. Choteau reported one third of its residents sick with influenza. Cases flooded the railroad hospital in Missoula, 46 cases in three days. Boulder closed its schools due to the number of students and teachers with influenza.

“Never in the history of Bozeman has there been so much sickness at one time as at present,” said one news account.

In Helena influenza patients, many with pneumonia as a complication, filled both hospitals. The wife and son of former governor S.T. Hauser were among the early stricken; both recovered. The flu caused a lack of quorum that disrupted legislative sessions of both the Montana House and Senate.

Pneumonia accompanying some cases made the disease particularly dangerous. The deaths of both a reporter at the Great Falls Leader and a student at the College of Montana in Deer Lodge were attributed to pneumonia accompanying lingering illness.

In Livingston, “the dread Russian disease … saddened many homes by primarily the cause of pneumonia and the kindred fatal diseases that caused the death of so many” (Livingston Enterprise, Jan. 25, 1890).

Butte routinely compiled a mortuary report. In one month (February 1891) during the second outbreak the 99 deaths recorded included nine deaths attributed to the “la grippe” and plus 35 deaths of pneumonia following the flu, as well as 23 other pneumonia deaths, and 32 deaths by other causes.

There was little doubt that transmission was respiratory. As the Butte Miner (May 26, 1892) reported, “When we consider that a person suffering from influenza discharges millions of these germs every time he or she expectorates, the readiness with which the disease is contracted is easily accounted for.”

“The proper remedy is to isolate patients,” the Miner warned readers.

Although viruses and coronaviruses were not discovered until the 1930s, the Russian flu of 1890 is now suspected to have been a coronavirus with an animal (probably cow) to human transmission.

That suspicion is based on genetic research, review of historical clinical data, and shared characteristics of the 1890 and 2020 disease outbreaks (multiple organs affected, intestinal and neurological symptoms as well as respiratory, long recovery periods, rapid spread, multiple waves).

Even in 1890, the neurological symptoms convinced some doctors at the time, including some in Montana, that the disease was not influenza, and thus they did not list influenza as a cause of death.

Furthermore, the genetic research suggests that the coronavirus of the 1890 pandemic has weakened into a now endemic modern cold virus (human coronavirus OC43).

What’s the lesson from the Russian flu pandemic of 1890?

It doesn’t matter what we think we know or what we believe. COVID sickens, disables, even kills. Personally, I don’t mind if you disagree with me, scientists, or government agents or agencies. I still don’t want you to get sick, disabled or dead.

Please take care. In public, please wear a mask in public and maintain physical distance. Please get vaccinated, and get a booster shot.

Please stay healthy.

Anne Millbrooke is a historian who lives in Bozeman.



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