updated 7/25/2005 5:24:56 PM ET 2005-07-25T21:24:56

New York City may have had a preliminary bout with the deadly Spanish Flu months before it swept the world in 1918, killing millions.

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An estimated 3,000 children and young adults died in an influenza outbreak in New York, prior to the worldwide spread of the illness that claimed 40 million lives, including 600,000 in the United States, researchers report.

Donald R. Olson of Columbia University and colleagues analyzed city public health records from 1911 to 1921 and found a sharp increase in influenza deaths among children and young adults in February through April of 1918.

In a typical year the majority of deaths from flu occur in older people, but when worldwide pandemics occur the fatalities occur disproportionately among younger people, Olson reports in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thus, the excess influenza deaths among young people in early 1918 in New York City may indicate a preliminary encounter with the flu that was to sweep the world the following fall and winter, the researchers suggest.

They cannot be sure without recovering samples of the virus itself.

While the 1918-1919 pandemic was given the name Spanish Flu, in recent years there has been speculation that the virus actually originated in the central United States.

“These findings are inconsistent with the prevailing hypothesis of a spring 1918 Kansas origin, and they reopen the possibility that the virus had spread from Europe to New York City in the context of troop movement during World War I,” the researchers report.

The United States entered World War I in 1917, resulting in sharply increased movement of soldiers and others back and forth between this country and Europe, where combat had been raging for three years.

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