Tuesday 10 March 2009

Polio + Europe's worst mining disaster

There are small but ominous signs of polio making a comeback in Africa, aided by the chaos prevailing in parts of the continent. Refugees fleeing Somalia have brought the disease back to Kenya for the first time in 20 years, and Uganda has just had its first case in 12 years at a refugee camp, while Togo had three cases in 2008, after being clear of polio for five years.

A worldwide campaign against the virus reduced the number of cases from about 350,000 in 1988 to just 1,310 in 2007, but Bill Gates, who has pledged £185 million to the fight against the disease, says that if it is not eradicated, the number of victims will start rising again.

On this day....103 years ago, Europe’s worst ever mining disaster happened at the Courrieres colliery in northern France. About 1,800 men and boys were underground when a fierce explosion ripped through the pit. Rescue workers toiled day and night and managed to bring more than 650 men up, but eventually so many of the galleries collapsed that the search had to be called off.

Then astonishingly, 20 days after the disaster, a group of 13 miners emerged. They had survived by eating food taken down by colleagues who had been killed, and by slaughtering a horse. In the perpetual darkness, the group had lost all sense of time and believed they had been trapped for only four or five days.

The final death toll was 1,099 – a number surpassed only by the Honkeiko mining disaster of 1942 (see my blog of February 22).

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