Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Flu Will Return

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry

This excellent well-researched book covers the rise of modern medicine in America, the state of the home front during America's surge to World War I, and the path of influenza through it all. It's a wonderful history of the early 1900s that I can highly recommend, and there's not too much virology, either, if you're worried about that. There is enough, of course, to emphasize that the next great flu is coming and we are unprepared. (Wonderful news, no?)

Some notes:

1. Kansas was probably the starting point for the pandemic flu that struck in 1918 and 1919. Aren't we lucky?

2. The regular old influenza that hits every year kills more people than AIDS - around 36,000 deaths a year in the United States alone.

3. The influenza pandemic in 1918-1919 killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years.

4. Mr. Barry brought up an interesting question. Should the 1918 influenza virus genetic code be published? It would, of course, help scientists around the world develop potential vaccines and even better medications. It could also give sophisticated terrorists another powerful weapon. I didn't try to find out if it's been published yet.

5. If we ever have pigs and chickens, we're going to keep them far away from each other. It's just a theory, but I don't want to be the source of the next influenza pandemic that devastates the world.

There are dangers to reading this book on an airplane in December, as I did, listening to people all over the plane cough and sneeze their germs into the air. I'm not sure I'd recommend that plan.

I'd also like to point out that I'm not recommended we stop devoting resources to HIV and AIDS. I'm proposing we treat influenza with the same level of respect.

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