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

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. – Review – book reviews

Rebecca Reisner

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It Gina Kolata FARRAR, STRAUS, AND GIROUX, $25

IN FALL OF 1918, AN UNGODLY SICKNESS coursed across the globe, killing its victims within just three to five days of infection. It would begin with sudden debilitating headaches and chills, then quickly move on to pneumonia, purpling the faces of sufferers and blackening their feet as they drowned in their own body fluids. During one month, it slew nearly 11,000 in Philadelphia; bodies lay piled three and four deep on the city morgue floor. The pandemic reached as far south as Cape Town, South Africa, and as far north as Alaska, killing 72 of the 80 residents of one Inuit village in a week. The illness even interfered with a rival killer, World War I, as it raced through army camps. This plague left a death count of between 20 and 100 million people–more than the Black Death in the 14th century But the culprit had a name that, up until 1918, had evoked merely moderate alarm rather than widespread terror: influenza, or the common flu.

When the deathfest ended–just a few months after it began–so did the public’s collective interest in this mysteriously lethal flu strain (commonly known as the Spanish flu because it was believed to have originated in San Sebastian, Spain). “Some who lived through it said it was so horrible that they would not even talk about it,” notes science writer Gina Kolata. “Others tried to put it behind them as another wartime nightmare.” Kolata’s Flu follows the travails of those scientists and medical researchers who did remember the short-lived killer and have searched for the virus that caused it, in hopes of formulating a vaccine.

Kolata writes a medical detective story that is rich in scientific detail yet accessible to lay readers. The saga begins with the doctors who frantically studied the illness as the pandemic raged. First, they needed to learn whether a bacterium or a virus caused it. In Japan, a group of three doctors made progress with tests in which they deliberately tried to infect healthy volunteers. They poured flu-infected blood and mucus through sieves with holes so tiny that only viruses–and not bacteria, which are larger–could pass through. Then they exposed one group of volunteers to the viruses and another to the bacteria. Only those infected with the virus contracted the flu.

During the 1920s, doctors studied the blood of human survivors of the pandemic and discovered it contained antibodies that blocked swine flu. Perhaps, they thought, the 1918 flu had resulted from a mild form of a human flu that had infected animals, mutated into a deadly form within their cells, and bounced back to people. After the 1930s, researchers could examine the hitherto submicroscopic virus with newly invented electron microscopes. A flu virus, they learned, has the proteins hemagglutinin and neuraminidase protruding from its surface. The former allows the virus to penetrate a body cell so that it can replicate within. The latter enables the newly made viruses to blast the cell open and escape to invade new cells. The degree of virulence of the different flu strains, the researchers found, depends on variations in these proteins.

The most dramatic phase of flu research began in the 1950s with the quest for a 1918-flu virus specimen, and Kolata captures the character and flavor of these personality-driven adventures. They include pathologist Johan Hultin’s two daring low-budget expeditions to Alaska to dig up frozen corpses of Inuit victims buried since 1918, as well as the begging-to-be-a-made-for-TV-movie story of geographer Kirsty Duncan, who led a well-publicized but anticlimactic 1998 expedition to recover flu victims’ bodies in Norway’s permafrost.

Perhaps the most promising ongoing work is that of molecular biologists Jeffrey Taubenberger and Ann Reid. Armed with modern technology and old-fashioned patience, they have reconstructed segments of the 1918 flu’s genetic code, using samples from a forgotten trove of lung tissue bits that had languished in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology’s archive for 80 years. If they can locate more of the genetic material, researchers will be one step closer to formulating a vaccine for an illness that could someday reemerge to rival the threat of AIDS. The 1918 flu may or may not have ended in 1918. Before we find out, scientists would like to ready a crushing offense.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group