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1918 lnfluenza Pandemic - Norway: Fatalities

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  • Peter Olaus Eriksen Sten (1881 - 1918)
    Petter er oppført i folketellingen 1900 på Fustroten: Personliste Herad Krets Gardnr Bruksnr. Gard Uthus Tal pers. Pers. tilstades Pers. heimehøyrande Korn, potet Kreatur Fjærkre Bikubar Kjøkkenhage ...
  • Olaf Eivind Olsen Sundsfjord (1898 - 1918)
    Olav Eivind Sundsfjord var Ole og Elise’s første barn og ble født i Sundsfjord den 10. Juli 1898. På bildet er han 20 år. Bildet er faktisk tatt sommeren 1918, kort tid før han døde. Olav døde som en...
  • Johan Peder Abelsen (b. - 1918)
  • Alfred Marius Berge (1897 - 1918)
    Alfred døpt i Sagene kirke: Kildeinformasjon: Oslo fylke, Sagene, Ministerialbok nr. 4 (1894-1904), Fødte og døpte 1897, side 89. Permanent sidelenke: Permanent bildelenke: Alfred giftet seg med Alid...

1918 Influenza Pandemic - Norway: Fatalities

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ln the Norwegian Permafrost, a New Hunt for the Deadly 1918 Flu Virus

By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway, Aug. 20— They start digging on Friday morning, the five grave diggers all the way from London. Actually, much of the time they will be hammering through ice.

Here in the islands of Spitsbergen in the high Arctic between mainland Norway and Greenland, the ground three feet down is always frozen. At six feet, they should find the bodies, in the mass grave encased in a tomb of ice.

It is the time of the midnight sun. A white fox, its camouflage coat useless now against the bare rock and dark moss, slinks up the steep hill overlooking this small mining town. The seed-fluff from the Arctic cottongrass floats on the breeze among the rows of white wooden crosses.

Over the mass grave a tent with a special air lock has been stretched and inflated. The tent is for privacy in this somber enterprise and protection against letting anything possibly dangerous escape into the outside air. Inside, the diggers, with medical scientists at their side, will go about their business of opening the resting place of seven young men who were buried here 80 years ago.

This is a critical moment in one of the most ambitious efforts yet to solve an intractable medical mystery: What caused the influenza pandemic of 1918 and early 1919? Why was this particular contagion so virulent that it killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide? The secret of one of the most lethal viruses the world has ever known may dwell in the lungs of these seven men who were its victims.

Five years' work culminates in the next few weeks, Dr. Kirsty Duncan, who is directing the project, said as final preparations were under way. She specializes in medical geography and teaches at the universities of Windsor and Toronto.

Inspired by reading America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge University Press) by Alfred W. Crosby of the University of Texas, Dr. Duncan began the search for flu victims whose bodies might be preserved in ice. The research led scientists to the mass grave in the cemetery here.

In a diary kept by the coal mining company here, Dr. Duncan found the names of the seven men, 18 to 29 years old, farmers and fishermen who had just arrived here to earn extra money at winter jobs in the mine. But they had contracted flu on the boat trip from the mainland and died in the first week of October 1918. The sight of their names on the six crosses and one headstone at the back of the cemetery moved Dr. Duncan to tears: Johan Bjerk, William Henry Richardsen, Ole Kristofferson, Magnus Gabrielson, Tormod Albrigtsen, Hans Hansen and Kristian Hansen.

Dr. Duncan impressed Norwegian authorities with the importance of the project of isolating and describing at last the unknown 1918 virus. She emphasized the safety precautions that would be taken. The authorities then obtained permissions from the families to exhume and examine six of the seven bodies (all but Mr. Kristofferson's). By the time the permissions came through, Dr. Duncan had gathered an international group of pathologists, virologists, molecular biologists, geologists and medical archeologists for the work.

A survey with ground-penetrating radar established that the bodies, side by side, were indeed in permafrost and thus should be well preserved for medical study. A team of experienced grave diggers from the Necropolis Company in London was hired.

After the topsoil is removed by spade and the permafrost is penetrated with electric jack hammer, Dr. Charles R. Smith, a pathologist from the Hospital for Sick Children at the University of Toronto, plans to remove samples of tissues from the victims' lungs, intestines and other organs. The bodies, which were not embalmed, will not be thawed or taken from the grave, both out of respect and as a precaution against the spread of any infectious material. The scientists seriously doubt that any of the flu virus will still be alive, but just in case, each will be wearing a modified space suit with self-contained breathing apparatus.

Once the tissues are extracted, portions of each sample will be sealed in separate vials and shipped to laboratories in Norway, Canada, Britain and the United States. The most sensitive investigations will be conducted at the United States Army's infectious disease research laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. and the National Institute of Medical Research in London, which are equipped to maintain the highest levels of biological containment of unknown organisms.

Dr. Tom Bergan of the University of Oslo, a virologist on the team, said the tissue samples would not be touched until they arrived at the laboratories. Our first obligation is safety requirements against the risk of contamination, Dr. Bergan said. We want to make sure there is no viable virus in the sample and, if there is, protect against its escape into the environment.

Dr. Bergan said the research might help determine the composition, genetic structure and nature of the 1918 virus, in particular its exterior surfaces, where the virus attaches itself to the lining of the lungs and the upper respiratory tract. Such knowledge could lead to the development of a vaccine against this acute form of influenza and tests and modifications of current or new anti-viral drugs for treating the disease.