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Remembering an attack of terror in Mississippi

One Writer’s Perspective

The summer of 1975 started with such promise. It seemed there was change — positive change — in the air. The Vietnam War was over. We were putting Watergate behind us. And everybody was already gearing up for the big Bicentennial celebrations slated for the following year. Red, white and blue was everywhere. For the first time in about a decade, patriotism and American pride was evident — and cool. The country was reveling in its independence.

I was reveling in my own independence that summer in my hometown of Greenville. I was 14 years old, and, as my little brother likes to say, feeling “10-foot-tall and bulletproof.” My hair had grown a little long. I could stay out a little longer with friends. Life was football games in the park and homemade ice cream. It was fun — and safe — to be alive.

Then, reports of something called St. Louis encephalitis began to surface. I had heard of malaria, but this mosquito-borne disease was a new one to me. I learned the virus causes serious illness, sometimes death. But most fatalities were in the elderly, and since I was “bulletproof,” I didn’t let it bother me.

However, one human case became two, then three. People were sick in Washington County and beyond. Concern mounted. Concern quickly turned to fear, then outright terror, as the first death was reported. Then there was another death, and another, and another. It really hit home with me when a young person very close to my age succumbed to the virus. For the first time in my life, I became aware of my own mortality. It could be me, I thought.

It seems that’s what a lot of other folks were thinking, too. Public events were cancelled. Ballgames were called off. Yard sales and family reunions were scratched. Anglers and skiers avoided Lake Ferguson like — well — like the plague. Traffic at hotels and restaurants lagged. I heard of some who hoarded groceries, filled up all their cars with gasoline and generally stayed home. The economy, and life in general, was tremendously affected.

I remember laying in my room, staring out my window at my hometown that now seemed to be under siege, and thinking, “I can’t see them, but I know they’re out there. Little mindless creatures bent on killing me.” I was scared and a little bit angry — incredulous that my way of life had been assaulted.

Panic has its way of bringing out the extremes in folks. Some advocated draconian measures — I even heard people urging the city to start using DDT again, collateral damage be hanged. Others said it was a natural cycle and we would just have to make it through the summer somehow.

But it wasn’t all divisive or negative. There was a strong sense of common purpose among Greenvillians that summer. We were in it together. Friends and neighbors huddled together for support. I remember hearing of many charitable acts as volunteers assisted in finding shelter for the homeless or helped put screens on windows. It all added up to a feeling of unity, and lines that traditionally divided our community were erased.

That sense of commonality served Greenville well in its efforts to end the epidemic. Using approved pesticides, the city stepped up spraying operations (even spraying from the air using crop dusters). Grass was kept mowed. Old containers, tires — anything that could hold water and serve as a breeding ground for the mosquitoes — were removed. People dressed in long pants, used bug spray liberally and avoided going out in the early morning and late evening when mosquitoes are most active. In short, we tried to go about our lives while at the same time remaining vigilant and aware of potential danger.

These measures — and time — worked to our advantage. A change of season was never so welcome as the fall of 1975. It had been a long summer.

Greenville had been hard hit. The attack rate at one point reached 215.6 per 100,000 people. Statewide, there were 229 laboratory-confirmed cases of St. Louis encephalitis.

Thirty-six Mississippians died.

Encephalitis was not wiped out that summer. It’s made several appearances since then, including this past summer when two human cases were confirmed in South Mississippi (fortunately both recovered). Across the river, Louisiana reported dozens of encephalitis-infected citizens. It’s an ongoing “war,” one that our children’s children will almost certainly be fighting. It’s a struggle to maintain a secure and happy way of life. In essence, it’s us against an indifferent and uncaring foe.

The good news is we don’t live in perpetual, life-halting panic over encephalitis. We’ve learned to cope, and our health care system is more than adequate to handle future outbreaks. Life goes on.

That little microbe hasn’t beaten us into submission. Why should anthrax? Virtue et Armis.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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