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1918 flu epidemic brought tragedy, hope of finding answers to Svalbard
Death of seven miners led to expedition to see if cause of rapid spread could be learned
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A black headstone and seven crosses at the rear of Longyearbyen Cemetery, above, marks a row of graves for the coal miners who died here during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.

When one of the world's worst epidemics struck nearly a century ago, those living in the Arctic were hit especially hard. And in the graves of seven coal miners who died in Svalbard, there was once hope of finding clues to keep it from happening again.

The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide, compared to 28 million who died in the two world wars and an estimated 25 million who died during the Black Death in the mid-13th century. Medical science was at a loss to explain the Spanish flu's rapid spread which resulted in 7,300 deaths and 370,000 infections in Norway.

Dozens of Svalbard residents fell ill during the summer of 1918 and a few deaths were reported, but the miners came on the last ship carrying workers from Tromsø that year.

"The ship left Tromsø on 21 September 1918 for Longyear City with sixty-nine healthy, young people, " wrote Sigurd Vestbyes Dagboker in a diary kept by Store Norske. "All of them fell ill during the two-day crossing, but none of the crew succumbed to Spanish flu, as they had all been sick with flu earlier that summer."

The men were 18 to 29 years old, the typical age range of flu victims, and were farmers and fishermen from the mainland hoping to earn extra money as miners during the winter. But they died during the first week of October and were buried Oct. 27 in a row of graves still in place today.

Excerpts from Dagboker's diary are captured in the 2003 book "Hunting The 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search For A Killer Virus" by Kirsty Duncan, a Canadian specialist in medical geography and Liberal Party politician. She led a multinational scientific expedition to Svalbard in August 1998 to dig up the graves and examine six of the seven bodies (permission was not obtained for the other's family), hoping the Arctic environment might have preserved clues about the virus not possible in warmer areas. The project coincided with research being done on victims in Arctic Alaska and other areas where the disease spread.

Tissues from the victims' lungs, intestines and other organs were collected once they were located using ground-pentrating radar, according to a New York Times account.

"The bodies, which were not embalmed, will not be thawed or taken from the grave, both out of respect and as a precaution against the spread of any infectious material," the article notes. "The scientists seriously doubt that any of the flu virus will still be alive, but just in case, each will be wearing a modified space suit with self-contained breathing apparatus."

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Longyearbyen in 1918.

The article also noted the project created little stir among Longyearbyen residents used to seeing scientists engaged in unusual research.

"I haven't heard of a single soul who has been afraid," Hallvard Holm, then-headmaster of Longyearbyen School, told the newspaper. "I know there have been jokes, nothing more."

Some keeping a watch in the outside world weren't as indifferent, raising concerns about the potential adverse consequences of trying to recover such a virus.

"Unfortunately for the scientists, but fortunate for us, the expedition was unsuccessful," wrote Sonia Dong in an article for the Web publication Environmental Graffiti.

But Duncan, who in her book focuses largely on medical and sociological aspects of her multiyear project, emphasized even scientific findings falling short of their goals can still lead to productive results.

"Scientific leads sometimes simply disappear, only to reappear later" she wrote, adding "I hope that someone will take on the challenge of finding its cause and cure."


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