Monday, August 26, 2013

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The title: Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918
The authors: Gina Kolata
Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
Got it from:  The library

I have been wanting to read a book about the influenza epidemic of 1918 and this one was recommended as one of the best.  Unfortunately it doesn't actually go into as much detail as I'd like about the actual epidemic.  It's almost entirely about what happened after, which is itself a fascinating story.

In recent years there has been more interest in studying this flu, but until the 1990's (ie, in living memory), it was almost as if it never happened.  But the facts are shocking: more people died of the flu in just a few months than were killed in World War I.  What made the disease so horrifying was that it most often struck and killed young adults (aged 20-40).  Until recently, no one knew what it was and what caused it.

The author goes into great detail about the lives of the scientists who in the years after searched for the killer virus.  This is a timely subject for those of us living today, having just gone through the 2009 swine flu epidemic and will probably be facing another one in a matter of years.  The problem was that in 1918 doctors and scientists weren't equipped with the tools and knowledge to combat the virus, let alone to figure out what was causing it.  Modern-day scientists had to do some serious detective work to track down the extinct virus.  In a few cases, they used tissue samples taken from victims and stored in paraffin, in other instances they traveled to the Arctic and unearthed the bodies of victims from permafrost.

Reading this makes me want to know more about the social history of the effects of this disease.  How could 40 million people (most of them in the prime of life) just disappear without it affecting the course of history?  There is some hint at the ripple effects on people's psyches, such as the 1976 American vaccine debacle where scientists and politicians rushed to vaccinate people because they feared another 1918.  Perhaps these are questions to be answered by another book.

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