This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most devastating global disasters in world history, the Flu Pandemic of 1918. During the fall of the Great War in 1918, an extremely virulent strain of influenza began to spread worldwide. The H1N1 influenza virus also known as the Spanish Flu caused such widespread outbreaks that it killed one fifth of the world's population. This year's influenza strain, the H3N2, is not a new strain, but it's one of the most lethal. Already it has affected every state in the U.S. and is on track for surpassing previous flu seasonal records. What to learn more about viruses? Check out this list!
The history of "the greatest massacre of the twentieth century," an illness that infected more than 500 million people.Between 1918 and 1920, the "Spanish flu" killed more than 50 million people, far more than in the world war then raging. Unlike the familiar flu, which targets infants and the elderly, it killed healthy adults. It was mankind's worst epidemic, writes Paris-based science journalist and novelist Spinney (The Quick, 2007, etc.) in this fine account of influenza's history, its worst attack (so far), and its ominous future. Despite the name, Americans were probably the first to experience the fever, cough, headache, and general miseries of the infection. During spring and summer, it behaved like the usual flu, but in fall 1918, it turned deadly and spread across the world, killing 2.5 to 10 percent of victims, a fatality rate 20 times higher than normal. Scientists have offered countless theories about the illness, but Spinney looks favorably at a recent theory that the 1918 virus provoked a "cytokine storm," a deadly overreaction of the immune system. This may explain why infants and the elderly, with their weaker immune systems, had an easier time. In the middle sections of the book, the author describes how a dozen nations dealt with the epidemic. Heroism was not in short supply, but superstition, racism, ignorance (including among doctors), and politics usually prevailed. In the concluding section, Spinney recounts impressive scientific progress over the past century but no breakthroughs. Revealing the entire viral genome opens many possibilities, but so far none have emerged. Researchers are working to improve today's only modestly protective vaccine; Spinney expresses hope. Readers who worry about Ebola, Zika, or SARS should understand that epidemiologists agree that a recurrence of the 1918 virus would be worse. Short on optimism but a compelling, expert account of a half-forgotten historical catastrophe.
The author unpacks the complex cultural, social and scientific effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic and reveals the American voices that fill the gap of a suppressed national memory. In less than two years, influenza killed more than 50 million people worldwide, shocking existing medical infrastructures and destabilizing the trust that citizens had in science. Physicians were at a loss to prescribe effective treatments; racial and gender divides grew as misunderstandings about the spread of disease exacerbated existing stereotypes; and fear of contagion threatened to collapse the kind of community support that had helped the nation endure past hardships. Simultaneously, the rise of public health care employed the rhetoric of opportunity and optimism, further destabilizing social boundaries as the death rate climbed. A combination of media emphasis on looking toward the future and a public call for increased funding for new scientific research assisted in whitewashing the deep sense of loss and despair that afflicted most Americans as they dealt with the aftermath of the pandemic. Bristow, whose great-grandparents succumbed to influenza in 1920, writes with depth and feeling. By researching dozens of primary sources, she reveals the human circumstances and personal stories behind the history of this tragic era. It's a much-needed addendum to pandemic literature and an important perspective to understand as new and ever-evolving flu strains hover over our collective understanding of disease.