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Posts Tagged ‘Encephalitis Lethargica’

Recently, a phone conversation turned to—what else?—the pandemic. My friend told me that when she was a child, there were old ladies in her community whose hands shook. These women had been victims of the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century. They were in good health, living into their 90’s, but they had what was called a Parkinson’s disease, which was an after-effect of the flu.

Influenza virus

That set the wheels in my head spinning. Grandma Rogers’ hands shook. So did Aunt Hazel’s, her younger sister. At the height of the 1918 pandemic, they were 17 and 15. Neither they, nor other relatives, ever talked about the Spanish Flu or its aftermath. The only family member I knew of who had been affected was a great-great aunt in West Virginia who died of “pneumonia.” Family tradition was that she died of the Spanish Flu, which is very likely. In those days they didn’t have flu tests, and West Virginia was hard hit after infected soldiers returned from World War I.

Grandma Rogers and me

Could my grandmother and aunt have been victims of the Spanish Flu? Grandma once told one of my sisters that their mother, Hattie Brown, also had shaky hands. Three women in one family whose hands shook! When I was a child, I wondered if it was genetic, if I could have inherited it. I didn’t know about the Spanish Flu. Any time my hands were unsteady, I would worry. Needlessly. My hands don’t shake. Nor do any of Grandma’s descendants have this problem.

Hattie Brown, left, with sisters Sadie Smith and Fannie Houghtalen

Shaky hands didn’t hinder Grandma or Aunt Hazel from performing household and farming tasks. They even crocheted, did embroidery, and tatted. I have a beautiful table cloth Grandma embroidered and lace she tatted, as well as an afghan Aunt Hazel crocheted.

Aunt Hazel with Mutt, 1964

The Spanish Flu was misnamed. It was caused by the H1N1 virus, now known as the Swine Flu. It didn’t originate in Spain. It is thought to have crossed into humans at a pig farm in Kansas, but Spain got blamed for it. Due to censorship during the war, outbreaks in Europe and the US were not reported, but Spain was not spared, especially when King Alfonso XIII fell seriously ill with the disease. He survived, but due to the general perception that Spain was an epicenter of the infection, it was so labeled.

For more information, I turned to the internet. It took some digging and asking the right question. Finally, I found discussions about Post-encephalitic Parkinsonism, also called Encephalitis Lethargica, or von Economo’s Encephalitis, after the doctor who studied it. This syndrome had a variety of symptoms, including movement disorders (shaky hands). It appeared in epidemic proportions between 1916 and 1929, with over a million known cases, but has not been seen since. It coincided with the 1918 pandemic, but some victims didn’t develop it until years after they had the flu.

Parkinson’s Disease can be genetic, but not always. Virus infections have been known to cause Parkinson’s. In mice, H5N1 (related to H1N1) can enter the brain through the vagus nerve, causing inflammation and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. The mice seem to be more susceptible to later flu exposures, but vaccines and anti-viral medications can protect them. In humans, H1N1 doesn’t enter the brain, but can activate the immune system, causing inflammation, which can result in Parkinson-like symptoms.

Some victims didn’t develop Post-encephalitic Parkinsonism until years after they had the Spanish Flu. There is no hard proof to link the two, but there sure is a strong correlation. This Parkinsonism is thought to be a post-infectious autoimmune disorder.

Grandma was in good health, except for arthritis, and she lived to 96. Aunt Hazel suffered seizures as a child and diabetes in her later years, but otherwise her health, too, was good. What about their father? George Brown was a wallpaper hanger. Grandma once told me that when his eyesight got bad, he had to give up his vocation because he could no longer see the seams well enough to hang paper straight. So he went into farming. Now I wonder, did he also have the flu? If it left him with shaky hands, that too would have made it difficult to hang wallpaper.

George Brown with grandsons Russell and Donald Rogers, 1927

We cherish the stories our grandparents told us, but from time to time, questions arise that we wish we had asked. We didn’t think to ask about the 1918 pandemic, or whether Grandpa Brown’s hands shook.

We keep hearing about “long haulers,” COVID victims whose symptoms persist after they’ve “recovered,” and warnings that there may be long-term medical effects of the virus. My grandmother, her sister, and her mother were long-haulers. Their shaky hands were a cosmetic symptom that didn’t shorten their lives, but we don’t know what COVID-19 will leave sufferers with, and teenagers are not immune. The “Parkinsonism” didn’t appear in many early 20th century victims for years after the pandemic, so it may be a long time before we know what today’s victims will face. And what about a-symptomatic victims? Can they become long-haulers?

Another thing to consider is that subsequent virus infections can trigger Parkinson-like symptoms. Studies in mice found that immunizations and anti-viral medications could protect them. Does that mean we should get our flu shots every year?

Personally, I’m suspicious of flu shots because of the nasty ingredients in them, such as heavy metals. I got the COVID vaccine because I was more scared of the disease than of the nasty ingredients. My personal plan is to keep wearing my mask until the end of the pandemic (just in case), continue to socially distance, and keep drinking my pine tea. After we get through this, each flu season, I’ll rely on the anti-viral compounds in pine tea to keep me healthy. I don’t want COVID, and I don’t want to be a long-hauler.

Check out my award-winning novel Trials by Fire. Available on Amazon. You can read a selection from the book here for free.

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