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Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918

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Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It , By Gina Kolata. (Touchstone Books, 2001. Pg. 352.) ISBN: 0-7432-0398-4

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 9, 2001

The great influenza pandemic of 1918 killed at least 40 million people worldwide, although some estimates run as high as 100 million. Despite the horrendous death toll, the flu pandemic of 1918 is often overlooked, both scientifically and historically. Why this is the case, is but one of the many questions that Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times, tries to answer in Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918.

In this book, Kolata offers the reader an in-depth look at the 1918 pandemic, including what influenza is, the effects that the epidemic had, both politically and culturally, and its long term aftereffects. She also looks at various other diseases such as Cholera, Ebola, Anthrax, Bubonic Plague (Black Death), and AIDS. She explores the effect that each of these diseases has had upon man. She also takes a hard look at how scientific thinking, and knowledge, has changed since 1918.

In many regards, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 is written like a murder mystery. Kolata offers several biographical sketches of the victims, she explains how the killer was identified, at least superficially, and the steps taken to try to apprehend this nefarious killer. Unfortunately, unlike most mysteries, this is a story without an end. The killer is still on the loose, and we don't know when, if ever, he will strike again. In exploring the course of the 1918 pandemic, Kolata also describes the social and cultural implications of the diseases, and graphically describing how the murders were carried out.

The 1918 influenza pandemic began like any other flu season. In the early months of 1918, multitudes took sick with the flu, but at this time it was not overly deadly. By the middle of the summer no new cases were reported and Doctors thought that the danger had past. However the flu reemerged, with a vengeance, on August 28, 1918, and by October it had spread around the world. Kolata graphically describes the course of the infections and the effects that it had on the human body. And she explains that most of its victims literally drowned as fluid filled their lungs. She describes the massive death toll, the effect it had on survivors, and what happens to a city when the bodies pile up quicker than they can be buried. She tells the tale of several Eskimo villages which were decimated by the flu. She describes the state of medical knowledge at the time of the epidemic, and the massive strides that have occurred, since 1918, in our understanding of the science behind the flu. She also explores the efforts made to develop an effective and timely vaccines for the various flu strains. She also explores the connection between swine flu, avian influenza, and human influenza.

In Flu, Kolata takes a detailed look at modern, epidemiological research being done into the flu epidemic of 1918. She explores the various lines of research that scientists have taken as they have tried to decipher why the common flu took such a deadly turn, and their efforts to develop a vaccine against this strain, just in case it ever returns. This research has included the study of tissue samples taken from autopsies flu victims, and has included the exhumation the bodies of flu victims in order to search for samples of the virus. She also looks at two recent expeditions, in which researchers attempted to exhume the bodies of flu victims. One expedition chronicled in this book is that of Johan Hultin, who had studied the flu in Brevig, Alaska in 1951. He returned to Brevig in 1997 to continue his research. Brevig was a small Eskimo village in which 72 of its 80 inhabitants died from the flu in November 1918. Working alone and on a shoe string budget, he personally dug up a communal grave filled with flu victims - using an old-fashioned shovel, took a few samples of tissue likely to still contain the virus, and quietly returned home - his journey a success. Unlike Hultin's bare-bones expeditions, Kristy Duncan organized a massive expedition to Norway to dig up the bodies of some Norwegian miners who died of the flu. She spent loads of money, organized a massive PR campaign for her expedition, marshaled together a huge group of students and fellow scientists to aid her in her investigation. The failure of her expeditions was recorded, from many angles, for posterity.

This book is part medical mystery, part history, and part social commentary. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 is a fascinating book, however it is geared toward the general reader and if you are looking for detailed scientific explanations, you will be disappointed. Because this book is geared toward a wide audience, the scientific information has been kept to a minimum and the explanations given are somewhat simplistic. Nonetheless, these explanations are clear and they will give the general reader a fairly firm grasp of the basic principles surrounding the flu. These principles include how the flu is spread, the mechanisms surrounding the creation of a flu vaccine, and why it is necessary to develop a new flu vaccine each year. She also lucidly explains why most flu epidemics have their origins in Asia. For those who wish to become more academically acquainted with the flu, Kolata has included detailed endnotes that will help lead you to more detailed overviews of the disease. Overall Kolata has crafted an eminently readable and engaging book that offers an excellent overview of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918.

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