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Chapter 10 : The Great Influenza
Over the centuries, influenza epidemics were ascribed to the alignment of the stars or poisonous vapors (miasmas) as well as the weather, but by the 19th century the leading candidate was a bacterium (named Haemophilus influenzae by the German microbe hunter Richard Pfeiffer) found in the throats of patients suffering from the disease. In 1940 a distinctly different strain of influenza virus was isolated from a human; it was named influenza B virus. Subsequent studies showed that both the influenza A and B viruses could be grown in chicken embryos and that infected fluid from such embryos would clump chicken red blood cells. Control of cholera depends on the separation of sewage from drinking water; control of malaria depends on the eradication of mosquitoes and treatment of the infected individual; control of viral diseases such as measles, mumps, smallpox, polio, and yellow fever depends on the isolation of the virus and production of a protective vaccine. But influenza is different. Seventy years after the isolation of the causative agent and the development of vaccines, influenza remains the only infectious disease that appears periodically in life-threatening pandemics. The 1918 outbreak of influenza remains one of the world’s greatest public health disasters. Some have called it the 20th century’s weapon of mass destruction. It killed more people than the Nazis and far more than did the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The epidemic spread globally, moving outward in ever-enlarging waves.