Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Spanish Flu & History!

As I have said many times in this blog, “History always repeats itself,” &  it is truly our best way to learn about the future by studying the past. I had no idea when thinking about doing a column for my blog site on the Flu that it was a precursor to an actual flu epidemic arriving in real time. 

Influenza is an Italian word Influenza di freddo, meaning, “influence of the cold” because it surfaces in colder weather.

The worst epidemic in recorded history was the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 that actually had nothing to do with Spain.  Spain at that time was a restful destination during WWI for people, since it was close to Europe’s war but a warm neutral country and its presence was first noted there.

The virus spread into Army camps easily since men were gathered together in close quarters.  So many men were infected and even though they were young and healthy they died by droves.  The symptoms were like a normal flu but progressed quickly and killed, settling into the lungs and turning them into blood and fluid filled sacs.  Luckily, samples of the lungs were taken, placed into preserving fluid and sealed in wax and kept in Army warehouses where they became of value decades later. Though for many years after its exit we did not understand where it came from…  the question remained as to would it ever return.  

Although much research has been done on the average flu and we have learned how to make vaccines and adapt them to new strains and have developed anti viral drugs…this disease continues to mutate and return yearly occasionally in a severe form.

My interest in it came when a researcher contacted me looking for information on the Madison County Home and its death records.  The research she was doing was to try and come up with a better understanding of how many people in an area had died from it.  Most local hospitals and health care places listed deaths as pneumonia, since there were few facilities that recognize flu distinctions.

This strain of flu it is estimated killed over 50 million people worldwide and over 675,000 in the US alone. (This number is probably light.) The flu strain infected people on remote islands, countries around the world and even remote Alaskan native missions, one of which would play an important role in it research.  To give you an idea of its deadliness…this isolated village on the tundra had 80 people of which over 70 died.  It is a heavyset woman who was buried in 1918 there, and dug up in 1997 that provided our best information and a sample that researchers resurrected the deadly virus from so that it could be completely genome sequenced…recreating the deadly virus under strict security measures in Atlanta. The work was started in the 1950’s when a young researcher named Hultin…from Sweden studying in the US, decided to find the virus in a corpse preserved in the permafrost of Brevig, Alaska… at a mission… since the religious missions kept records.  He failed in his first attempt but returned in 1997 and found a corpse he named Lucy who kept the virus frozen below a layer of fat.

This allowed scientists to remake the virus genome under strict condition and try to find how it started and why it was so deadly.  The main idea is that it was likely was an ancestor or closely related to the earliest influenza virus’s known to infect mammals. However, they believed the virus likely obtained its HA from avian viruses, but were unsure how long the virus may have been adapting in a mammalian host before emerging in pandemic form, perhaps starting in 1915 – 1918. Today the World Health Organization keeps tract of possible Pandemics and we monitor flu stains all of, which appear to come from China. 
They realize that Worldwide Pandemic could in the future be used for warfare and flu strains that could be developed for that reason…

From our CDC... *Of note, the study was able to sequence the entire code of the 1918 virus’ NA from the virus sample obtained from “Lucy’s” body. So here again, Hultin’s work proved invaluable. The authors found that the NA gene of the 1918 virus shared many sequence and structural characteristics with both mammalian and avian influenza virus strains.9 Phylogenetic analysis suggested the NA gene of the 1918 virus was intermediately located between mammals and birds, suggesting that it likely was introduced into mammals shortly before the 1918 pandemic. Furthermore, the 1918 virus’ NA obtained from Lucy suggested that it is very similar to the ancestor of all subsequent swine and human strains.

For more information you can visit the CDC website which wrote a great article on the pandemic in 2018 for its centennial or read the FLU by Gina Kollata that reads like a Forensic File murder mystery.

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