Bird Flu and the 1918 Pandemic

Title Bird Flu and the 1918 Pandemic
Description Similarities between 1918 and 2006?
Message You've probably heard about the "bird flu" in the news. You've probably heard on the news that the H5N1 bird flu has mutated as well. The first sign that the H5N1 virus strain mutated came when international investigators discovered it had leapt the species barrier. Most viruses are unable to adapt to the cellular structure of species other than the one in which they first evolve. However, bird flu quickly learned to reconfigure itself.

First, in August 2004 in China, it hit pigs, whose immune system is closely related to humans'. It moved on to tigers and leopards (October 2004), killing 23 in a central Thailand zoo, then, in Vietnam (June 2005), to domestic cats and rare civets, which in 2003 spread the human outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), another virus that originates in poultry. "Every species leap [by H5N1] represents a new virus mutation, increasing the chance that one will become highly infectious to humans," says Dr Peter Horby, an epidemiologist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), in Hanoi.

In northern Vietnam, H5N1 first jumped to humans in January 2004. The virus triggered an explosive cytokine storm in the body as the immune system was induced to attack human tissue, causing massive haemorrhaging in the lungs. The x-rays of one patient in its grip are chilling: on day five, the bottom left of her lung is partially fogged; by day seven, both lungs have filled, as she drowned in her own body fluids.

Within 18 months, 87 people in Vietnam had been infected; 38 of them died excruciating deaths. With each new case, the virus advanced, infecting larger clusters of patients, remaining for weeks in one community before re-emerging in another without visible links. In other Asian countries, including Thailand and Hong Kong, outbreaks among humans were quickly brought under control, but in Vietnam the virus lingered, its ever-changing symptoms making it harder to diagnose and treat. " We are at a critical situation in Vietnam," Horby says. "There are little alarm bells ringing everywhere in Vietnam. The pandemic is inevitable - and probably soon."

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, National Vaccine Program Office , "there's no simple answer to the question of how serious a pandemic might be. It all depends on how virulent (severe) the virus is, how rapidly it can spread from population to population, and the effectiveness of pandemic prevention and response efforts. The 1918 Spanish flu is an example of a worst-case scenario because the strain was highly contagious and quite deadly. This pandemic killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Since our world today is vastly more populated, and people travel the globe with ease, the spread of a next pandemic could be more rapid than that of previous pandemics.
Time for planning is limited. The National Vaccine Program Office estimates "that an average pandemic could progress from a Novel Virus Alert to a Pandemic in a matter of months. This time frame could be much longer if the disease is not readily contagious, or it could be shorter if the virus spreads quickly."

Tissue samples from the pandemic of 1918, rediscovered in the Royal London hospital by John Oxford, professor of virology at the London School of Medicine, showed the 1918 pandemic was probably caused by avian influenza that leapt from poultry kept in British army camps on the western front in winter 1916. Within two years, the virus had mutated, enabling it to pass between soldiers as easily as the common cold, killing more than 40 million people.

Perhaps I am a little more concerned about the scenario than most, but I have a personal connection to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic by way of my grandfather's eyewitness description. My Grandfather lived with his family in Oklahoma, on a farm. During the winter, in order to avoid contact with contagious people, my great-grandfather quarantined his family. He contracted with people in town to bring the family food and necessities, and to leave those at the road. Even though there was no direct contact, my grandfather remembered seeing the county coroner's sleigh carrying the dead as the coroner visited the neighboring farms. Apparently, the winter of 1918 was very cold. The family members of the victims that succumbed to influenza placed the dead outside, where the bodies froze solid. The coroner stacked these bodies on the back of the sleigh like cordwood. Obviously, this sight made an impression on my grandfather, then a six year old child.

He described watching the county coroner's sleigh drive up and over the snow drifts that had accumulatted against the fences that divided the farms. The dead passengers wrapped in white shrouds, stacked one on top of the other, and secured by cords.
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Submission Date 02/17/09 - 04:16 PM (Edited 02/18/09 - 03:23 PM)

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