The coronavirus pandemic has upended the world for just about everybody.
And yet, throughout history, infectious disease outbreaks were much more common than they are today, especially in the United States. It’s only been within the past 50 years that deadly outbreaks in the U.S. of diseases such as influenza, polio and cholera stopped occurring with any regularity, thanks to the development of vaccines and other medical and scientific advancements.
Some of the worst epidemics and pandemics to hit Maine over the centuries had devastating effects on a number of vulnerable populations in the state — from indigenous people to immigrants to children. Here’s a roundup of some of the other disease outbreaks Maine has been through.
One of the ways viruses begin to lose their impact is the fact that the human body tends to develop immunities to them once a person has had a virus once. If a person has never been exposed to a particular virus — and most humans have not been to today’s coronavirus — that virus’ effects are often much more deadly.
Such was the case in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when smallpox devastated indigenous people across the Americas, none of whom had ever been exposed to the virus. Smallpox killed millions upon millions of people after Europeans landed on American shores, nearly wiping out entire tribes. It’s estimated there were 15,000-20,000 Wabanaki people living in what is now Maine before Europeans arrived in the mid-16th century. Within 100 years, nearly 80 percent of them had died from smallpox, as well as from typhus and flu.
While indigenous people were disproportionately affected, colonists were also affected by those diseases. Smallpox, influenza and measles outbreaks were a regular part of life in the 18th century. A particularly bad outbreak of smallpox occurred between 1775 and 1782 during the Revolutionary War, affecting all 13 colonies, spreading as far away as what is today California, and killing tens of thousands of people. George Washington became a leading proponent of the then-new practice of inoculating his soldiers with smallpox, thus giving them immunity. A proper smallpox vaccine was not developed until 1798, by British scientist Edward Jenner.
Throughout the 19th century, a series of fast-moving, deadly cholera pandemics swept the globe, killing millions. The bacterial disease, spread mostly by water and food contaminated by human feces, has been stopped in most parts of the world by access to clean water. As late as the 1920s, however, it was a real threat, even after a cholera vaccine was developed in the 1890s. Cholera outbreaks are ongoing in both Haiti and Yemen.
Cholera outbreaks happened in Maine on several occasions between the 1830s and 1850s. One account of an outbreak in Bangor comes from 1832, when a chest of clothing belonging to a sailor who died from cholera in Europe was shipped home to Bangor. The contents of the chest were distributed to family and friends, and all contracted the disease. Another cholera outbreak in Bangor in 1849 killed many members of Bangor’s Irish immigrant community, and a cholera outbreak in Lewiston in 1854 killed 200 people.
The 1918 influenza pandemic
The “Spanish flu,” as the 1918 outbreak was dubbed, was the worst pandemic in terms of loss of human life in modern history. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide, and in Maine, more than 5,000 people succumbed to the flu between September 1918 and May 1919, with around 47,000 total cases.
The first reported death in Maine was on Sept. 23, 1918, when a 36-year-old Augusta man died. Within a month, there were tens of thousands of cases statewide and more than 2,000 deaths. Though larger cities including Portland and Lewiston were more heavily affected, the flu made its way rapidly to all corners of the state — Bar Harbor was overrun with cases by Oct. 4, and Caribou and Madawaska counted multiple cases and a few deaths by November.
While orders for the closing of schools, churches and public gathering places did happen, they did not happen uniformly, with Portland ordering closures Sept. 28 — five days after the first death, and likely weeks after the disease first came to Maine. By Oct. 1, Bangor, Lewiston, Waterville and Augusta had all followed suit.
By the end of 1918, around 3,800 Mainers had died, with 2,500 of those deaths occurring in October 1918 alone. Though cases began to slow in 1919, another 1,200 Mainers died between January and May of that year. By contrast, 1,026 Mainers died during World War I — and half of those war dead actually died from influenza, not from combat.
Polio in the United States
Though the poliomyelitis virus has affected humans for centuries, for millennia its effects were less destructive, due to the fact that people were constantly exposed to it, and thus developed immunity. With great advancements in public health and sanitation in the 19th century, however, polio came back with a vengeance, due to reduced immunity.
In the first half of the 20th century, more than 15,000 Americans — two-thirds of them under the age of 15 — died from polio, and tens of thousands more were left permanently disabled. In Maine, a polio epidemic that started in New York City in 1916 reached the state on Aug. 7, with multiple cases throughout Maine and four reported deaths. Still others — many in the baby boom generation — were affected by nearly back-to-back outbreaks in the 1940s and 1950s.
Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, introduced in 1955, was considered one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century, and 65 years later, the disease is eradicated in all but three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Polio survivors in Maine were among those to publicly come out against a 2020 referendum to repeal the state’s elimination of the religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions to school and hospital vaccination requirements.
Other influenza and coronavirus epidemics
Since the 1918 pandemic, the world has been hit by other influenza and respiratory epidemics — none as bad as the Spanish flu or the present-day coronavirus pandemic. Two influenza epidemics in 1957-58 and in 1968 both came out of Hong Kong and Singapore, and both killed around 1 million people worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. The 1968 “Hong Kong flu,” as it was dubbed, made it to all 50 states, including Maine.
More recently, the 2002-04 sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak did make it to the U.S., though it caused no deaths and did not make it to Maine. The 2009 “swine flu” epidemic did cause deaths — 3,433 in total in the U.S. The first case in Maine was confirmed on April 29, 2009, and that day, Gov. John Baldacci declared a civil state of emergency, with several schools and day cares in York County closing for a week. In total, there were 2,232 cases confirmed in Maine and 21 deaths, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.