In September 1959, the Jersey Shore was attacked by a mysterious disease. From the Toms River south to Atlantic City, the victims were dejected and fell into a coma, followed by death.
Manahawkin Dr. Robert S. Irvine was one of the first to identify the culprit, encephalitis, commonly known as sleeping sickness.
On the 24th of the month, the Trenton Times reported on a press conference saying, “Dr. State Health Commissioner Roscoe P. Kindle said today that the US Public Health Service New Jersey is providing two doctors and a veterinarian to investigate possible cases of encephalitis.
“The deadly viral infection has been tentatively identified as the cause of four deaths in southern New Jersey. Doctors also suspect the disease in two other deaths and 12 illnesses. “
There was a warning.
“Rutgers College of Agriculture said a flock of 33 birds was tested two weeks ago and found encephalitis. Of these, 21 have since died and 12 have recovered. … Eastern equine encephalitis is the suspected strain. Symptoms are similar to polio and meningitis – upset stomach, headache, high fever, then coma and convulsions. “
Then came the question everyone was asking: Did New Jersey have what it takes to be an epidemic?
“We have an epidemic when an illness occurs unusually frequently,” a state health spokesman replied yesterday. “Since this is an unusual incident, one could speak of an epidemic. The problem is, we don’t know what an epidemic is. … In any case, officials at four hospitals are confident enough of their diagnoses to make them public. “
The next day, the Tuckerton Beacon reported from the epicenter of the outbreak.
“Mosquito sprayers have been widely used across Ocean County since Tuesday to get rid of the insects that carry the dreaded disease, encephalitis. …
“The mosquito war began Monday night in Manahawkin when Dr. Robert S. Irvin sent 5-year-old Thomas Redman from West Creek to Atlantic City Hospital suspected of having a serious case of encephalitis … and recommended spreading the word at least in the southern part of the county immediately to help fight mosquitos begin. “
The response was quick.
“Stafford Township was the first parish in the county to start spraying. The fog machine was in operation around midnight on Monday. Planes came to Southern Ocean County this morning to spray from above. “
Finally, United Press International reported that the state government announced: “An eighth person has died in southern New Jersey from a mysterious disease that the State Health Department says could be the center of an outbreak of deadly sleeping sickness. … A health department official flatly stated that there may have been an epidemic of encephalitis (sleeping sickness) in Atlantic and Ocean counties.
“DR. William J. Dougherty used the term epidemic yesterday because of an unusual concentration and manifestation of disease in some counties in the state. … so you would qualify it as an epidemic in those areas.”
The article also noted how terrifying the disease was: “The eighth potential victim of sleeping sickness was a 22-year-old man from Beach Haven who died late yesterday, three hours after being admitted to Atlantic City Hospital. Tests were ordered to see if he was a victim of encephalitis. “
On September 25, Camden’s Courier Mail went looking for a scapegoat, claiming the spraying was now too late.
“This can be a case where the barn door is locked after the horse is stolen. Health officials have been telling us for weeks, and most who poke their heads outdoors know without saying it, that this is the worst year for mosquitoes New Jersey has seen in a long time. The health authorities have also given us the reason. “
Why was there an increase this year?
“The reason is that the battle against the infamous pest was so nearly won that we became complacent. The districts have cut funding for their mosquito control commissions. The Legislature gave the State Control Commission only $ 75,000 for its work this year, despite asking for $ 250,000 … in a notorious example of government bureaucracy that its members have not denied. “
As the clue began, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the 27th: “Two new cases of sleeping sickness, both critical, were reported on Saturday in Manahawkin, Ocean County, New Jersey. New cases of the dread virus caused by bites from infected mosquitoes after contact with wild birds. … The victims reported on Saturday were Thomas Burnham, 11, son of Mayor William S. Burnham of Stafford Township, which includes Manahawkin, and Jerome Bragg Jr., 6, also of Manahawkin. “
Little seemed to be done.
“Dr. Handle pointed out that there is no vaccine for people suffering from encephalitis due to mosquito bites, and urged visitors and local residents to stay away from mosquito breeding areas, particularly in wooded areas and wetlands. … We are working against a new type of disease and doing our best to stop it from spreading. The only way to prevent this from happening is to kill the adult mosquitoes, use screens, nets and repellants, and avoid exposure. “
The next day, as the death toll continued to rise, the investigator explained what few things could be done.
“In all three counties, sprayers were used around the clock to hit mosquito-infested areas with insecticides. … Visitors and residents were asked to stay away from mosquito breeding sites such as forests and marshland. … In the absence of a vaccine for encephalitis, the efforts of the health authorities have been preventive in nature. The use of screens, nets and repellants was strongly recommended. “
For the next few days, anyone who was bitten by a mosquito could only wonder and wait.
Next week: strike back.