Scientists learn history of Spanish Flu at Fort Riley

By Season Osterfeld, Fort Riley Public AffairsMay 19, 2017

Scientists from a variety of disciplines around the world learned more about the Spanish Flu as part of the 8th International Conference on Emerging Zoonosis from May 7 to 10 hosted by staff of Kansas
Robert Smith, director of the museum division at Fort Riley, walks scientists in different disciplines from around the world through the history of the cavalry May 9 at the U.S. Cavalry Museum. The scientists were in Manhattan, Kansas, for the 8th In... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RILEY, Kan. -- More than 25 scientists from around the globe visited Fort Riley May 10 to hear the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak at the installation and tour the museums.

The scientists were in Manhattan, Kansas, May 7 to 10 for the 8th International Conference on Emerging Zoonosis hosted by staff of Kansas State University. The conference is held every three years and consists of an interdisciplinary forum of physicians, veterinarians, epidemiologists, immunologists, virologists, microbiologists, public health experts and others. During the event, the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans and the economic impact of transboundary diseases were discussion topics.

With the assistance of retired Lt. Col. Arthur DeGroat, director of military affairs at Kansas State University, and Capt. Jamie Pecha, 1st Infantry Division preventive medicine officer, the international scientists received the history of the H1N1 Influenza, or Spanish Flu, that struck Fort Riley and spread across the world in 1918.

Fort Riley is believed to be the origin of the world-wide epidemic that killed millions, said Robert Smith, director of the museum division at Fort Riley.

"It was probably the greatest pandemic the world has ever seen," he said. "They (researchers) think it killed between 2 and 4 percent of the world's population. It was even greater than the bubonic plague back in the 14th century."

Over lunch at Demon Dining Facility, Smith presented the history of the Spanish Flu at Fort Riley, as well as background on the installation and living conditions of Soldiers at that time. With a smirk, Smith told the scientists that patient zero was an Army cook named Albert Gitchell.

"They thought it mutated from pigs and then infected some Soldiers, some draftees, from Pascal County, Kansas, and they came here to train at Fort Riley and then the first recorded flu case here was a cook of all people," he said.

Stephanie Hober, grant specialist, Kansas State University Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases, said the tour and history were enjoyable and gave the group local background information on an epidemic several have studied.

"They're getting to see the historical significance of Fort Riley in the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the impact it had on the surrounding area here in the time it happened and the advances they've made since that time," she said.

Understanding the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu and how it spread through a military installation, across the nation and internationally helps scientists develop a larger picture on how viruses and diseases transform into pandemics and on to epidemics, said conference co-host Dr. Jürgen Richt, from Kansas State University's Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases.

"It's history and it's very good that Fort Riley is a historic place and has a historian who is very able to describe well the history of how from Fort Riley these disease evolved and causes millions and millions of deaths," Richt said. "It's very important to have this historical perspective."

Richt said the conference gets the scientists and experts communicating across disciplines when they normally would not. They can exchange information and work together to understand, treat and prevent diseases that travel between humans and animals.

"We have to bring these people together, they often don't speak," he said. "The medical doctors don't speak with the veterinarians and vice versa and we can solve these problems so far. These zoonosis can become epidemics … We have to understand, not only from the human side, but also what's going on in the animal reservoirs, and only then can we have a clear picture of what the risks are for these diseases to spread and come to our shores and what we need to stockpile now, like (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) vaccines … These are the kinds of questions we have to address and that's why we bring together epidemiologists, virologists, bacteriologists and so on."