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Flu (1999)

de Gina Kolata

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1,0952913,461 (3.71)1 / 57
The fascinating, true story of the world's deadliest disease. In 1918, the Great Flu Epidemic felled the young and healthy virtually overnight. An estimated forty million people died as the epidemic raged. Children were left orphaned and families were devastated. As many American soldiers were killed by the 1918 flu as were killed in battle during World War I. And no area of the globe was safe. Eskimos living in remote outposts in the frozen tundra were sickened and killed by the flu in such numbers that entire villages were wiped out. Scientists have recently rediscovered shards of the flu virus frozen in Alaska and preserved in scraps of tissue in a government warehouse. Delving into the history of the flu and previous epidemics, detailing the science and the latest understanding of this mortal disease, the author addresses the prospects for a great epidemic recurring, and, most important, what can be done to prevent it.… (més)
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I decided to reread Gina Kolata's Flu during self-imposed COVID-19 isolation. I thoroughly enjoyed this book when it was first published in 1999. The author provides a brief history of the 1918 flu pandemic, and of earlier pandemics, but most of the book is focused on the efforts to identify and understand the virus that caused that pandemic. Many of the researchers the author interviewed for this book have probably retired or passed on by now, and epidemiology has changed dramatically since 1999, but the stories are still interesting.

The 1918 flu struck near the end of WWI, when troops on the front were already exhausted and malnourished, and when US military bases were packed with new recruits. The movement and mixing of large numbers of people greatly contributed to the spread of the pandemic.

Some things never change. In 1918, crazy conspiracy theories about the cause of the pandemic were rampant. Public officials in many countries tried to downplay the risk - until they couldn't. Various "cures" were promoted, some worse than others. And 100+ years later, we are still making the same mistakes. ( )
  oregonobsessionz | Jul 20, 2020 |
Interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. I learned a lot about the 1918 flu - I'd been aware of it, of course, but I had no idea of the scope of the disaster. Knowing that, the later scares about bird flu and the like make more sense. But then she goes on to describe some of the recent and current attempts to understand this flu virus; it's framed as a triumphant "we figured it out!" story, but in fact there are no solid answers yet. Things have been figured out, but they don't include why the 1918 flu was so virulent, why it harmed those it did, how to make a vaccine against it if it shows up again...it's very much a story in progress, which appears to dribble off inconclusively in the book. If it had been framed differently - as a search rather than a solution, say - it might have ended more smoothly. Still worth reading. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Dec 29, 2019 |
I enjoy working on genealogy and often note deaths that occured in worldwide 1918 flu epidemic. This interesting book covers the Influenza pandemic of 1918 itself and the attempts of scientist afterwards to find and isolate the virus itself. ( )
  MrDickie | Oct 27, 2019 |
Consider this: During the great influenza pandemic of 1918 the average life span of the U.S. population fell by twelve years. Twelve! Gina Kolata writes that “Undertakers in Philadelphia were overwhelmed and some were…hiking prices as much as 600%.”

Desperate, and with no animal model available to use in studying the disease, authorities offered pardons to convicted naval prisoners who would agree to be infected by what scientists hoped were fluids or air with the contagion. Sixty-two convicts agreed to be lab rats. Prison must have been an especially dire place ca. 1918.

You might think a book about such terrible epidemics, and the pursuit of defenses against them, would have no amusing moments. Not so. As an example, in 1940, Johan Hultin, while on leave from the University of Uppsala in Sweden where he studied medicine, came to the U.S. to work at the University of Iowa. First he visited New York and when a friend there showed him a sign that said ‘coin laundry,’ recalled “I never asked what it was—I knew it. Americans are so worried about germs that they have their coins cleaned.”

If only there were such places. Think of all those bright, shining pennies.

Gina Kolata has written an informative account covering disease origin, manifestation, spread, treatment, mortality, and prevention. One might expect the approaches we use to address these issues would tap primarily our rationality and intelligence. But as she relates, they are matters that have become much politicized. With what consequences remains to be seen. ( )
  dypaloh | Jan 5, 2018 |
Of the three books on the 1918 influenza pandemic I’ve read recently (the other two were John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza and Alfred W. Crosby’s The Forgotten Pandemic), this one is the most up-to-date and the most “popular”. Gina Kolata, a science journalist, spends most of her time discussing personalities rather than scientific and medical details. That’s not such a bad thing, really, since most of the personalities involved are pretty interesting – Johan Hultin, who excavated a mass grave of flu victims in the Eskimo town of Brevig, Alaska, and recovered enough lung tissue to partially sequence the virus; Kirsty Duncan, who turned the search for preserved tissue in the Svalbard permafrost into a media event, and Jeffery Taubenberger, who recovered virus from tissue samples preserved in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, are three of the most interesting. Kolata also covers the “Swine Flu” episode of 1976 and the Chinese “bird flu” outbreak, and the politics associated with both. Not good if you want technical details – Barry’s or Crosby’s books are better for that – but as befits her profession, Kolata is a more gripping storyteller. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 8, 2017 |
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This is a detective story. Here was a mass murder that was around 80 years ago and who's never been brought to justice. And what we're trying to do is find the murderer.
— Jeffrey Taubenberger, molecular pathologist
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If anyone should have known about the 1918 flu, it was I.
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The fascinating, true story of the world's deadliest disease. In 1918, the Great Flu Epidemic felled the young and healthy virtually overnight. An estimated forty million people died as the epidemic raged. Children were left orphaned and families were devastated. As many American soldiers were killed by the 1918 flu as were killed in battle during World War I. And no area of the globe was safe. Eskimos living in remote outposts in the frozen tundra were sickened and killed by the flu in such numbers that entire villages were wiped out. Scientists have recently rediscovered shards of the flu virus frozen in Alaska and preserved in scraps of tissue in a government warehouse. Delving into the history of the flu and previous epidemics, detailing the science and the latest understanding of this mortal disease, the author addresses the prospects for a great epidemic recurring, and, most important, what can be done to prevent it.

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