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Pandemic Influenza State Summit Opening Remarks

The Honorable Micheal Leavitt, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, delivered the following opening remarks at the Alabama Pandemic Influenza State Summit on February 22, 2006, in Birmingham, Alabama:

That Great Pandemic also touched Alabama. It first appeared in late September 1918 in Florence, Alabama, (in the northwest corner of the state). Just three weeks later, more than 25,000 cases of influenza in the state had been reported to the U.S. Public Health Service.

It is impossible to know for sure exactly how many Alabamans were affected by the flu, since regular reports to the U.S. Public Health Service were never made. But, it is known that during the last two weeks of October, more than 37,000 cases of the flu erupted in Alabama. People around the state died by the hundreds.

Health care professionals worked tirelessly, and with limited resources, to stem the tide of the rising pandemic. A report sent to the U.S. Public Health Service described the conditions under which physicians in Florence were working:

"...[doctors were] overwhelmed with work [and] were handicapped by inadequate transportation and two days behind in making calls; many patients . . . had been sick in bunk houses and tents for several days without nourishment, or medical and nursing attention, the sanitary conditions of the bunk houses were deplorable; the mess halls were grossly unsanitary and their operation much hampered by the lack of help; the existing hospitals were greatly overcrowded with patients; and patients were waiting in line several hours for dispensary treatment, and were greatly delayed in obtaining prescriptions at the pharmacy. The epidemic was so far progressed that the immediate isolation of all cases was impossible."

One man, J.D. Washburn, served in a medical unit in Alabama during the war and recalled his experience:

"We worked like dogs from about seven in the morning until the last patient of the day had been checked in or out - usually about 10 o'clock that night. The men died like flies, and several times we ran out of boxes to bury them in, and had to put their bodies in cold storage until more boxes were shipped in. It was horrible."

When it comes to pandemics, there is no rational basis to believe that the early years of the twenty-first century will be different than the past. If a pandemic strikes, it will come to Alabama.


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