By the end of September 1959, politicians and health officials were trying to cope with the deadly outbreak of encephalitis commonly known as “sleeping sickness” on the Jersey coast. On the 24th of the month, the Tuckerton Beacon identified the culprit and how he worked.
“A health department official said yesterday that there is no way encephalitis could be transmitted from man to man or horse to man. … Eastern equine encephalitis is a disease of migratory birds that is transmitted from bird to bird by mosquitoes, said Dr. Martin Goldfield, assistant director. The mosquitoes prefer to feed on birds. … However, when infected birds and mosquito populations become very high, some other animal or human species can be bitten by these mosquitoes and become ill with the disease. “
Knowledge of the problem was not enough to stop its spread. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the 28th. “Two deaths on Sunday brought the death toll from the suspected sleeping sickness outbreak in the South Jersey coastal area to eleven. The victims were: Jerome Bragg Junior, 10, from Manahawkin, who died less than 24 hours after admission to Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood (and) George Kauffman, 77 from New Gretna, and died at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point.
“Doctors are also fighting to save the lives of two other young suspected encephalitis victims in the hospital.”
The next day, the investigator said, “Two more victims of suspected sleeping sickness died in South Jersey on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 14 out of a possible 23. But the Trenton state health department said the epidemic was declining.
“A statement from State Health Commissioner Dr. Roscoe P. Kandle stated that the weekly high for new cases began on September 7th and the number of new cases has decreased weekly since then.”
From the state capital in Trenton came “New Jersey Governor Robert B. Meyner called the situation serious but said it should be addressed” without raising undue alarms “.
To keep people calm and prevent panic, “the chief of health has allayed fears that heavy rains in Ocean County’s Manahawkin area, the hardest hit by the outbreak, will increase due to the additional spread of mosquitoes in wetlands would lead. … He stated that the disease can only be transmitted by the adult mosquitoes and doubted that new plants grown now would transmit the disease this year. Dr. Richard L. Hayes, (a) entomologist with the US Public Health Service, is collecting mosquito samples in the affected areas to identify the carriers. “
On the same day, newspapers around the world carried the news of what was happening on the Jersey Shore. From far-away Australia: “The death toll from an epidemic of fatal encephalitis that struck southern and central New Jersey rose to 13 today, but state officials said the incidence of the disease, commonly known as sleeping sickness, is decreasing . … Dr. State health commissioner Roscoe P. Kandle said what he called a “moderate epidemic” is decreasing. He said the number of reported cases has steadily decreased since Sept. 7. “
The next day, the Red Bank Register announced plans to control it as the epidemic appeared to be spreading northward into Monmouth County
“Monmouth County’s freeholders held a special meeting last night to announce that all of the county’s facilities and the County Exterminating Commission are being used to eradicate mosquito breeding areas. In the meantime, local government and health agencies across (Ocean) County held special meetings or announced special activities in the war against mosquitoes in the face of fear of encephalitis. “
On October 1st it was reported: “Bass River Township – a state of emergency has been declared. No children play outside. Schoolhouse windows are closed. One woman said, “We have a swamp in front of us and a forest behind us, and there are mosquitoes all around us.”
Both Dr. Roscoe P. Kandle, New Jersey Health Commissioner, and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Leroy E. Burney expressed hope that the disease would subside in New Jersey.
“Burney said that New Jersey has no funds for spray operations at this time. Arthur S. Fleming, General Manager of the Department of Health Education and Welfare suggested that the counties seek help from the state government before contacting Washington. “
The next day, Asbury Park Press reported how people looked at the famous Jersey Shore.
“Toms River – two Life Magazine employees came here this week to write a story about the mosquito-borne encephalitis outbreak. The couple arrived in a rental car that was air conditioned so they could drive comfortably with the windows closed. They had a good supply of insect bombs with them.
“Your clothes: overalls and special safari hats that are covered with mosquito nets to cover your face and neck.”
In the coming days, counties and cities would turn to the only weapon: DDT. Trucks and planes would cover the Jersey Shore with the insecticide and spray the wetlands without thinking about the long-term effects of their activities.
Next week: Quiet spring.