Tracking the Flu in Historical Perspective

Tom Ewing (professor of history and associate dean for research in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech), coauthor of an article in the January issue of Perspectives on History, has been keeping us updated on projects that use innovative data gathering to report on the spread and severity of the flu this winter. Ewing’s interest goes beyond the questions we all have about how bad the flu season will be and whether that sneeze coming from the fellow bus passenger behind us will put us out of work for a day or a week. Ewing is part of a team at Virginia Tech that has been working on a text-mining project to track the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic using newspaper reporting. By creating algorithms that can sniff out changes in tone, the project proposes to not only add up flu cases, but to examine how communities responded. The article offers an engaging demonstration of what text-mining techniques can offer all historians—and points to some pitfalls we should all keep in mind.

On the recent rash of flu reporting online, Tom sent us his historical perspective, and some useful links.

Allen Mikaelian

For historians interested in changes in the flow and scale of information, comparing disease reporting provides evidence of both continuity and change. Just a decade ago, reporting on disease followed more traditional methods. When seasonal influenza developed in late 2003, the New York Times relied primarily on Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data taken from hospital and physician reports of admitted and treated patients. The weekly data was supplemented by news releases and press conferences by health officials; reporters supplemented this data by interviewing physicians who reported on cases they had observed. This reliance on official sources continues in the present, yet in this area of reporting, as in so many other fields, those seeking news have the option of going directly to websites such as FluView to find, sort, and analyze the data on their own.

Identifying examples of self-reporting as a way to track disease can also be useful strategy for historians. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, many of the first reports on the escalating outbreak of disease came in local news sections of newspapers, in the form of reports on community and family members who had taken ill or died. In Vermont, for example, the Middlebury Register published a front-page report on October 4, 1918, that listed dozens of sick or dead community members. Given that the earliest and most severe outbreaks occurred in army camps, these reports often involved young men who had only recently been drafted for military service. In Jasper, Indiana, for example, the weekly newspaper reported on October 11, 1918, about the death at Camp Grant of George Krodel. Age 29, Krodel had left just Jasper a month earlier “in a picture of health,” and so his sudden death from influenza “was a shock to his relatives and many friends.” On the same page, the Jasper Weekly Courier announced that “all local schools, theatres, public gatherings, etc.” had been closed due to the epidemic of Spanish influenza. These sources illustrate how even in an earlier, pre-digital age, information about disease appeared from both official and community sources.

— Tom Ewing

Links to current forms of flu reporting:

Flu Near You

Google Flu Trends

FluView

Tamiflu

Kimberly Clark Kleenex

Theraflu WheresFlu Online

 

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