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A Cause for Concern and Study: The Flu Today and in 1918

By Haven Hawley, Acting Director and Program Director, IHRC

The spread of a particularly virulent influenza strain in Mexico has rung a public health alarm bell because of similarities to the deadly flu pandemic of 1918. It's far too early to predict that the 2009 experience could be as devastating, but a new historical source based on fraternal association records at the IHRC may help researchers in modeling responses to today's situation.

The Ukrainian Fraternal Association Collection offers a wealth of information about ethnic life in the United States during the 20th century, but until 2008-2009 the collection -- which is mostly in Ukrainian for early years -- simply was inaccessible for most researchers. In the past year, the IHRC began translating and digitizing records from 1918 to 1920 as part of “The Ukrainian American Health, Mortality and Demography Project,” funded by a seed grant from the Minnesota Population Center. The pilot database provides a powerful tool for analyzing the effect of a pandemic on an ethnic community.

Infections from the influenza A (H1N1) virus identified in Mexico are now appearing in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1918, a flu virus was identified in the United States, with waves of infection following as the virus mutated and traveled to Europe, across the globe, and back to the United States the following year. The UFA database provides a range of demographic information that allows both multivariate analysis of social patterns and, with the support of manuscript holdings, access to long-term correspondence revealing the context of Ukrainian migration to the United States.

The horror of World War I overshadowed the 1918 pandemic in public memory, but about twice as many people died from the early 20th-century virus as from the war. The fact that the virus seemed to target healthy victims has remained a hallmark of that pandemic. Recent deaths in Mexico have also been among those in the prime of life rather than the youngest or the elderly, but this parallel should not be overstated, because the course of the disease is not fully predictable, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Health scientists have begun mathematically modeling the social interactions of communities to devise effective ways of reducing transmission, and the UFA data can be incorporated into such models.

The UFA database includes information much broader than mortality and health, however. The new data set, available for onsite use at Elmer L. Andersen Library, reveals the crossroads of immigrant life. The level of information for individuals is deep and includes village of origin in Europe, changes in family size, and type of occupation, among many possible variables. Fraternal associations often were the only institutional providers of assistance for new immigrants. The insurance policy records of organizations such as the UFA are a vital source for reconstructing evidence about ethnic communities and migration.

For the 2009 virus, the World Health Organization has raised its designation of the threat level because of recent findings of human-to-human transmission and the ability of the virus potentially to spread at the community level. Although the WHO has not advised travel restrictions, the CDC has issued guidelines for travel to infected areas.

As in the opening decades of the twentieth century, global travel has increased dramatically, making a truly world-wide threat extraordinarily difficult to halt. Understanding the global aspects of how diseases operate is important, but it is even more critical to determine the specific patterns of interaction within communities, where containment and mitigation efforts can be implemented successfully.

Institutions in the United States have begun implementing procedures to ensure preparedness. The University of Minnesota is among those institutions with plans in place to deal with public health disasters, whether the spread of swine flu or another threat.

The IHRC currently is working to obtain a grant for expanding the project to the beginning of the Ukrainian Fraternal Association’s files in 1911 and extending, in time, across the 20th century. Digitizing the collection will allow the IHRC to provide individual-level information while putting in place controls for ensuring confidentiality as the project moves forward. The UFA data set for 1918-1920 creates a window for new scholarship with significant public health applications, and especially for careful analysis of historical parallels with the 1918 pandemic.

Global health concerns have provided special urgency for making the IHRC’s vast collections of fraternal association records available, and they can be used for much more than the study of immigrant and ethnic health. The three-year snapshot of UFA records allows scholars to analyze linguistic patterns and literacy, occupational mobility, and the effect of nation-state formation on diaspora identity. As the UFA project expands longitudinally and IHRC databases broaden to include other collections, the value of preserving the records of American immigration will only increase.