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Researcher says flu responders can learn from 1918 epidemic

A doctoral student's research brings lessons and insight to a looming pandemic

If health officials and media prognosticators are accurate, this coming winter may bring with it one of the most sweeping, deadly outbreaks of killer flu that the world has ever seen.

While that prospect would terrify the average person, it also intrigues Jim Higgins, a doctoral candidate at Lehigh University, who has been researching the 1918 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million worldwide.

Higgins, who came to Lehigh after earning his B.A. in history and sociology at St. Vincent's College and his M.A. in history at Duquesne University, has spent the last several years combing through old coroner's reports, newspaper accounts, historical archives, hospital record and military files to piece together an accurate historical portrayal of the outbreak and spread of the 1918 flu. Higgins also cold-called nursing homes in the state to locate individuals with recollections on the 1918 flu outbreak.

What he's found, he says, should concern anyone.

"Most communities were woefully unprepared for the health crisis they faced," said Higgins, who is focusing his research efforts on the ability of Pennsylvania cities to respond. "Those cities that passed muster, relatively speaking, had been building a strong medical infrastructure for decades, and had sound public health policies based more upon science than politics. I'm not sure that's the case today."

Higgins' research has been done under the guidance of three Lehigh history professors: Roger Simon, John Pettegrew and John Smith, as well Dan Wilson, professor of history at Muhlenberg College. In each case, Higgins said, the professors have helped him focus on a component of the flu epidemic to gain a clear perspective on its causes, scope, legacy and lessons.

As a result, Higgins has found himself growing increasingly concerned with what he describes as a "bifurcated health care sy
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Source:Lehigh University


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