New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Influenza virus continues to both frighten and fascinate us with its capacity for change. Never was this more true than in the deadly pandemic of when , people died in the United States and 20 million people died worldwide. In , the United States developed a vaccine against a viral descendant of the virus that caused an outbreak which, fortunately, burned itself out at Fort Dix.
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Y ears ago the environmental historian Alfred Crosby was at Washington State University, where he was teaching at the time, when on a whim he decided to pick up an old almanac from This is apparently the kind of thing historians like to do in their spare time. He looked up the U. He turned to the almanac, and found about the same figure.
Then Crosby picked up the almanac from The U. What happened was the influenza pandemic. A virus that usually does little more than make people feel awful for a few days killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, if not far more, with , people dying in the U. The flu killed more people in a year than the bubonic plague killed in a century in the Middle Ages.
Worst of all, this flu disproportionately took the lives of men and women in their 20s and 30s, while often sparing the very old and the very young—two population groups that are especially vulnerable to the flu in most years.
This has confounded scientists for almost a century, but a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS puts forward a fresh answer to one of the enduring mysteries of medical science. Researchers led by Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona reconstructed the origins of the pandemic, concluding that the pathogen arose when an existing human H1 flu virus acquired genetic material from a bird flu virus.
That new H1N1 flu virus was able to evade immune systems, which helps explain why it infected more than a quarter of the U. A flu virus has two parts: hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins, shortened to HA and NA and just H and N when naming a virus.
Imagine a soccer ball studded with lollipops. The candy part of the lollipop is the globular part of the HA protein, and that is by far the most potent part of the flu virus against which our immune system can make antibodies. Worobey and his colleagues looked back at the kinds of flu viruses that were in circulation in the decades preceding the pandemic by examining antibodies found in old blood samples.
Your immune system will produce customized antibodies in response to a flu infection, and those antibodies will remain in your body, which allows scientists to identify the genetic makeup of the virus that led to their creation.
It turns out people born between and —the generation hit hardest by the flu—were mostly exposed during childhood to a H3N8 flu virus that began circulating during an earlier pandemic in , but not to an H1 virus, which meant that generation had virtually no antibodies to fight it off. By reconstructing the genetic origins of the flu, Worobey found that a version of that H1N1 flu virus was circulating for years before the pandemic began.
Because flu strikes most commonly in childhood, those born after were more likely to have had previous exposure to an H1N1-like flu virus, which would have offered them some protection. Meanwhile those born before were more likely to have been exposed to the H1N8 flu strain that was prevalent when they were children. In both the very young and the old, having earlier exposure to an H1 flu—even one different from the strain that caused the pandemic—offered a level of protection not present in those who had never been infected by an H1 strain.
That could explain the unusual mortality curve in the pandemic. Thankfully, no flu pandemic since has been anywhere near as deadly. The swine flu pandemic killed an estimated , people worldwide, comparable to flu deaths in a non-pandemic year. But two avian flu viruses — H5N1 and H7N9 — have for years been periodically jumping the species barrier and infecting human beings.
And like the flu, H5N1 and H7N9 are unusually deadly , particularly for the young and elderly, respectively. The PNAS paper suggests that this might be due to past flu patterns as well, with both groups having been exposed to flu viruses in their youth that offered them little protection against the new pathogens. If either virus were to mutate to the point where it could spread easily in the human population, the results could be catastrophic.
But the PNAS paper offers hope that doctors could begin to design flu vaccination strategies that compensate for the strains that different age groups never experienced as children. Down the line, scientists may even be able to develop a universal flu vaccine that targets parts of the virus that almost never change from strain to strain. Contact us at editors time. The flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people.
By Bryan Walsh. Related Stories. The researchers found a remarkable overlap between death rates in various age groups in and childhood exposure to an H3 flu virus that was mismatched with H1N1 pandemic virus. Get our Health Newsletter. Sign up to receive the latest health and science news, plus answers to wellness questions and expert tips. Please enter a valid email address.
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Solving the Mystery Flu That Killed 50 Million People
The flu pandemic, thought to be the deadliest in human history , killed at least 50 million people worldwide the equivalent of million today , with half a million of those in the United States. It spread to every part of the world, affecting populations in Japan, Argentina, Germany and dozens of other countries. Maybe most alarmingly, a majority of those killed by the disease were in the prime of life — often in their 20s, 30s and 40s — rather than older people weakened by other medical conditions. While the fearful atmosphere — surgical masks, stockpiling of food and avoidance of public gatherings — and potential economic ramifications are like those of , the medical reality is quite different. It had been twenty-four hours since the death and the births, and the wife had had no food but an apple which happened to lie within reach.
Coronavirus Is Very Different From the Spanish Flu of 1918. Here’s How.
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