Monday, March 30, 2015

The Great Influenza

It is believed that a flu virus managed to kill 5% of the earth's population around 1918. In The Great Influenza, John Barry puts us there. The reader travels with the bug across the world, gets a glimpse of the terror it caused among the population, learns how the virus works, and meets the scientists who try to fight it.

I thought the book was pretty good. I'm not the most adept at visualizing and understanding biology at the molecular level, but Barry's descriptions were excellent. I now have a very good idea of how all influenza viruses work, why they are so difficult to prevent (despite the availability of vaccines), and how they turn deadly.

One of the exceptional things about that particular strain of influenza was how many healthy people it killed. The elderly/sick/weak were spared relative to the healthy, and that is because this strain invaded areas that caused such a strong immune response that the virus managed to turn people's immune systems against the host. Amazingly, those with the strongest immune systems were thus the most vulnerable!

A fascinating property of the period in which this outbreak occurred was how little the media spread word of the disease. It was war time, and the government (which sounded quite dictatorial under Wilson's war propaganda machine) was quick to prevent things from being published that could "hurt" morale. I wonder if the government's ability to control the media was made easier by the fact that people were so reliant on newspapers, which I assume were likely local monopolies or oligopolies. Today, we live in a world where every medium competes for our attention with all sorts of "click-bait". While it's annoying and in many ways negative, it's likely much harder for authorities to prevent the spread of information, which is a good thing.

I do have a quibble with the book's length, however. I could have done without the narratives surrounding some of the victims/towns and scientists Barry chose to profile. But the book is full of educational information, and so I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting. Will read it. Thanks for the review.