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Human Bones Found Near Pennsylvania Highway Could Be From the 1918 Flu

Roadside construction reveals mass gravesite

Schuylkill County Deputy Coroner Joe Pothering points to human bones in embankment along Route 61 in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania August 14, 2015. Forensic archaeologists on Friday began excavating a highway embankment in eastern Pennsylvania, looking for more bones believed to be from impoverished victims of the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. (DAVID DEKOK/Reuters/Corbis)
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Almost a century after the Spanish flu ravaged the planet, a Pennsylvania construction worker may have uncovered a mass grave of the pandemic’s victims.

Last week, forensic archaeologists began uncovering a previously unknown burial site that experts believe could be holding the remains of victims of the 1918 flu pandemic. Construction workers employed by the Pennsylvania highway department had been excavating the hillside in order to widen a road in Schuylkill County, about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, when heavy rains exposed the human remains, David Dekok reports for Reuters.

“There are bones in there, you can see a tibia, femur, a jaw bone and stuff like that,” Schuylkill County deputy coroner Joseph Pothering tells Jackie De Tore for WNEP News.

Also known as “The Great Pandemic,” the 1918 Spanish flu was one of the most devastating diseases in human history, killing about 675,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The virus hit Pennsylvania particularly hard, killing 350,000 across the state by October of 1918. Almost 1,600 people died from the flu in a single month in Schuylkill County alone, De Tore reports.

“There was a genuine panic; everything closed, schools, hospitals, the only thing left open were drug stores,” Tom Drogalis of the Schuylkill County Historical Society tells De Tore.

The Spanish flu struck fast, sometimes killing people the same day they started having symptoms. As a result, victims who died from the illness were often buried without coffins in mass graves and sprinkled with lye to disinfect their corpses before being covered with earth. Once the bones exposed by the construction have been dug up, a team of forensic archaeologists from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania will conduct DNA tests to try and determine who the bones belonged to, Dekok writes.

As devastating as the 1918 pandemic was, it might have helped prevent recent flu epidemics from being nearly as bad. It turns out that the Spanish flu was an early variation of the H1N1 virus that caused several recent epidemics, including the swine flu outbreaks in 1976 and 2009. Because these recent strains evolved from the 1918 virus, some people’s immune systems were already primed to fight back when H1N1 reared its head again, Christine Soares wrote for Scientific American in 2009.

As for the newly-discovered victims of Schuylkill County, once the forensic teams finish their tests the remains will be returned to local officials for cremation and a proper burial at last.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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