May 19, 1996 in Nation/World

Frozen Graves May Hold Answers To Epidemic Researchers Hope To Dig Up Disease That Killed 20 Million

Associated Press
 

A research team plans to exhume seven bodies from permafrost in hopes of finding what caused a global epidemic that killed 20 million people in 1918 and 1919.

The 1918 epidemic was called Spanish flu at the time, but scientists didn’t have any way to precisely identify what it was.

Marked by a sudden fever, chills, headache, malaise, muscle pain, pneumonia and rapid death, it killed more people than all the fighting in World War I.

The Canadian-led team believes the deadly virus could still be lurking in the lungs of the bodies preserved in nature’s deep freeze on a Norwegian Arctic island.

And they say special care is needed so the microbes don’t revive once freed from their icy storage.

Records show that the men, miners in their 20s, died of an influenza-like illness that was ravaging the world. It reached even to Spitsbergen, above the Arctic Circle, where the men were digging coal.

Researchers hope discovering and analyzing the microbe will help ward off similar outbreaks in the future.

“This biological and scientific knowledge could be earth-shattering,” said team member Dr. Peter Lewin, a pediatrician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and a researcher of ancient disease.

“It will make medical history if we find what we’re after.”

Team leader Kirsty Duncan, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor who researches geography and medicine, spent three years trying to locate a far-northern grave site of people who had died in the great pandemic.

Duncan’s research team includes viral experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

An expedition is planned for the summer of next year.

© Copyright 1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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