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Deer Island Prison

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This been covered before on here from the Spanish flu pandemic?


Dr. Richard Shope, a well-regarded scientist who specialized in the study of flu and influenza, opened one of his most famous lectures as follows:
“We are faced at the moment with the most publicized influenza epidemic of all time, and there is great diversity of opinion concerning its eventual course and outcome. Some, who believe that the present outbreak is no different from those that have appeared periodically since the 1918-1920 pandemic, contend that it will come and go without any serious effects and that the public is being unduly alarmed. Others feel that the present outbreak bears some of the earmarks of the epidemic illness that occurred in the spring preceding the great influenza pandemic of the autumn of 1918 and that, as such, may constitute but the first wave of a more serious type of influenza to follow.”

Shope wrote this in 1958, yet his words sound like the atmosphere of today. Yes, there are differences between the respective viruses, but the point here is not to discuss epidemiology but to note how today has so many historical parallels.

In 1918 the Spanish Flu was a worldwide pandemic, first appearing  – it is generally believed – in Spain in the spring of that year. This struck many troops in Europe and throughout the world, but it was relatively mild, focused on people ages 15 to 34, and then disappeared. A second wave struck starting in the last week of August, and this was a much more virulent version. Data suggests that in the U.S., the second wave started in Boston, possibly brought over from Europe. Boston was a major hub for troops and troop movement. Many young and healthy soldiers were struck down and died quickly from the disease.

Shope discussed a much-studied experiment, or what today would be called a “clinical trial,” conducted nearby in Boston. The Navy and Public Health Services in November and December of 1918 sought and obtained sixty-two volunteers, naval prisoners age 18 through 34 on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. These prisoners were offered to have their sentences reduced or commuted if they volunteered. The volunteers were exposed to the flu in a variety of ways, including but not limited to, intravenous injections, arranging for conversations and close contact between test subjects and infected individuals, and having their nose and/or throat swabbed with secretions from infected persons. One prisoner developed a mildly inflamed throat. That was it. All others showed no signs of the flu.

Why? Science is still not sure, but it leads to some speculations about flu and initiated a discussion about acquired immunity. Perhaps some of the prisoners had contracted the earlier, milder version of the flu and were asymptomatic, or were all naturally immune, or some combination thereof. Could all the prisoners have been exposed and developed an immunity? Or perhaps they had a natural immunity? With sixty-two volunteers that seemed unlikely, but not totally impossible. So the experiment was performed again in San Francisco, this time with fifty volunteers who would receive pardons for military crimes, but this trial had stricter controls. All the volunteers had been at the naval base on Yerba Buena island in San Francisco Bay, and it was believed none had been exposed to the first wave of the flu. This experiment produced the same results.

Not one prisoner was infected with the flu. Why? How could this be? The then-raging flu was striking down young and presumable healthy individuals by the thousands, particularly in military bases. Scientists then and to date have studied these cases, and while there are many theories, there is no conclusive answer. The results of these experiments are counter-intuitive to most theories of how flu spread. On a legal note: these experiments could not take place in the U.S. today, at least not as they were conducted, because of laws that have been passed since then which prohibit giving too attractive, and/or unethical incentives to participate in a clinical trial.


Edited by SNACR
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