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Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (1999) Gina Kolata


I’d been wanting to re-read Flu for years, however, I the digital version never went on sale. But when the Covid-19 pandemic started, it went on sale one day, and I snatched it up and started re-reading.

This is a science book for the lay reader. She discusses the science, but doesn’t get into the weeds. She does discuss the numbers, and some of the ways in which society did (and did not) change after the pandemic.

How many became ill? More than 25 percent of the U.S. population. What about servicemen, the very young and healthy who were the virus’s favorite targets? The Navy said that 40 percent of its members got the flu in 1918. The Army estimated that about 36 percent of its members were stricken. How many died worldwide? Estimates range from 20 million to more than 100 million, but the true number can never be known.

How lethal was it? It was twenty-five times more deadly than ordinary influenzas. This flu killed 2.5 percent of its victims. Normally, just one-tenth of 1 percent of people who get the flu die. And since a fifth of the world’s population got the flu that year, including 28 percent of Americans, the number of deaths was stunning. So many died, in fact, that the average life span in the United States fell by twelve years in 1918.

But one of the things that book points out is that after the pandemic ended, people just stopped talking about it. She even mentions that a scientific journal stopped accepting papers on the flu, which is kind of nuts. Yet it seems a if the world purposely tried to forget what had happened.

Perhaps that is why so few people knew about the flu of 1918 for so many years, which–considering modern science and public health–makes no sense. But perhaps if a disease was seen as something that man could neither control nor treat, it was easier to forget. But that forgetting did mean that when we decided we wanted to study this devastating illness, there were not a lot of records or research to turn to. After all, it happened during the war, so the chaos was magnified.

But this book is more than that. It tells us a little bit about the victims whose preserved tissues would eventually give us information on the disease, 80 years after their deaths. It tells us of the scientists who started the search for the virus, and what made it so different from flus that had come before or after.

And it tells us of the search.

Holy cats, the parallel stories of recovering bodies from the permafrost are truly bonkers. They seem like something made for the movies, but this is history.

It also discusses possible reasons the flu became so dangerous, including a discussion of the swine fly of the 1970s that set back vaccination campaigns perhaps half a century, and of the wet markets in China, which very much brings us to where they are today.

That crucial step, Webster said, typically takes place in pigs. Pigs bridge the gap between birds and humans— both bird flu strains and human flu strains can grow in pigs’ bodies.

However, this story was written in 1999, so there is a lot of research that has occurred in the intervening years, and the pubic attitude towards public health has also changed.

It’s a fascinating read, and perhaps we can use some of this history to help us understand where we are now. But I’d rather use these lessons to help keep us from returning here ever again.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rating: 8.5/10

Categories: 8.5/10, Good Cover, History, Non-Fiction, Reread, Science & Nature

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