Thursday, June 4, 2009


Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata
Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 1999
hardcover - 335 pages, including prologue, notes, and index
ISBN-13: 978-0374157067
highly recommended

From the Publisher
When we think of plagues, we think of AIDS, Ebola, anthrax spores, and, of course, the Black Death. But in 1918 the Great Flu Epidemic killed an estimated 40 million people virtually overnight. If such a plague returned today, taking a comparable percentage of the U.S. population with it, 1.5 million Americans would die.

In Flu, Gina Kolata, an acclaimed reporter for The New York Times, unravels the mystery of this lethal virus with the high drama of a great adventure story. From Alaska to Norway, from the streets of Hong Kong to the corridors of the White House, Kolata tracks the race to recover the live pathogen and probes the fear that has impelled government policy.

A gripping work of science writing, Flu addresses the prospects for a great epidemic's recurrence and considers what can be done to prevent it.
My thoughts:

As everyone has probably noticed, I like plague and virus books. Always have. Kolata's Flu is a nice light edition to add to my collection. Due to the speed in which research is progressing, this edition is dated, but still it is a good place to start for novices. Kolata does not get overly technical and isn't concerned with historical settings, or thoroughly discussing the horrors of the 1918 flu. (For that find Barry's The Great Influenza.) As the subtitle says this is the story of the search for the flu virus. This doesn't just focus on the 1918 flu but into research on the influenza virus, including flu outbreaks from other years. For example, of ten chapters, two concern the swine flu fiasco of 1976. The chapters, to some extent, read like magazine articles written for the general public that have been tied together for a book.
Highly Recommended


When the plague came, on those chilly days of autumn, some said it was a terrible new weapon of war. The plague germs were inserted into aspirin made by the German drug company Bayer. pg. 3

You might notice a dull headache. Your eyes might start to bum. You start to shiver and you will take to your bed, curling up in a ball. But no amount of blankets can keep you warm. You fall into a restless sleep, dreaming the distorted nightmares of delirium as your fever climbs. And when you drift out of sleep, into a sort of semi-consciousness, your muscles will ache and your head will throb and you will somehow know that, step by step, as your body feebly cries out "no," you are moving steadily toward death.

It may take a few days, it may take a few hours, but there is nothing that can stop the disease's progress. Doctors and nurses have learned to spot the signs. Your face turns a dark brownish purple. You start to cough up blood. Your feet turn black. Finally, as the end nears, you frantically gasp for breath. A blood-tinged saliva bubbles out of your mouth. You die--by drowning, actually--as your lungs fill with a reddish fluid.

And when a doctor does an autopsy, he will observe your lungs lying heavy and sodden in your chest, engorged with a thin bloody liquid, useless, like slabs of liver. pg. 4

And no matter where it struck, the virus went after an unusual group--young adults who generally are spared the ravages of infectious diseases. The death curves were W-shaped, with peaks for the babies and toddlers under age 5, the elderly who were aged 70 to 74, and people aged 20 to 40.... And when it was over, humanity had been struck by a disease that killed more people in a few months' time than any other illness in the history of the world. pg. 5

How many became ill? More than 25 percent of the U.S. population. pg. 6

How many died worldwide? Estimates range from 20 million to more than 100 million, but the true number can never be known. pg. 7

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. If such a plague came today, killing a similar fraction of the U.S. population, 1.5 million Americans would die, which is more than the number felled in a single year by heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS, and Alzheimer's disease combined. pg. 7

The worst were plagues that changed the course of history and spelled doom for societies....When everyone else is dying, the resistant people will be the ones who remain to propagate. Their genes will begin to predominate." pg. 38

The 1918 epidemic came in two waves, a mild flu in the spring of 1918 followed by the killer flu in the fall. And it seemed the two flu strains were closely related. Infection with the first strain protected against the second. pg. 80

....even in pandemics, at least 7 percent of people who are infected with the flu can be asymptomatic. One reason the flu is less apparent in the summer is that the virus dies quickly in high humidity. It needs dry winter air to spread and flourish, which is why flu epidemics seem to disappear when spring arrives. pg. 136

No comments: