Physical Environment and the Spread and Virulence of Influenza in Rural MT

      Geographic circumstances led to the development of the state’s mining and agricultural industries, but the living and working conditions these activities created an environment that allowed influenza to thrive. Rural Montanans often lived in extremely isolated areas without a number of necessities, including heat and clean water. Rich mineral deposits in the Rocky Mountain foothills created a booming mining industry in Montana, but the residents of urban mining centers often lived in poverty in overcrowded tenements and worked in dirty and poorly ventilated underground caverns. Living and working conditions were not only risk factors for influenza but other diseases as well. During the pandemic, the number of deaths due to things other than influenza was higher than average; influenza and pneumonia complicated the preexisting conditions that living conditions often created. The relationship between Montana’s economy and physical environment played a significant role in the state’s high mortality rate.[1]

            Following the Expanded Homestead Act, thousands made their way to Montana to set up homesteads and farms, and many of these people lived in poor conditions where illness thrived. Rural families struggled to keep warm in Montana’s bitter winters. As the autumn and winter of 1918-1919 set in, families battling influenza also fought freezing temperatures. Rural families often resorted to burning their fence posts and outbuildings to keep warm, and influenza infection made the labor required to heat homestead shacks increasingly difficult, speeding the course of the illness and creating other issues as well. Clean water was also a constant problem. Many rural Montanans hauled their water from railroad stations or wells and cisterns miles away from their homes. This task was impossible for an individual fighting influenza, and during the pandemic rural families went without water or used water from sources closer to home. Even before the pandemic, outbreaks of waterborne illnesses such as cholera, typhoid fever, and giardia were common. The constant battles with such diseases weakened immune systems, leaving rural residents vulnerable to influenza when it arrived.[2] 

[1] Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, 86.

[2] Toole, Twentieth-Century Montana, 64.


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