Influenza, Epidemics and the Global Village

By all accounts, this has been an uncommonly hard-hitting flu season with reports calling it the worst flu season in nearly a decade. The Centers for Disease Control has now issued disturbing reports including a marathon-running mother of three who contracted the flu and died within two days and a previously healthy Connecticut boy who traveled with this hockey team to Buffalo, contacted the flu, and died a short time later.

These may seem like atypical events, but unfortunately, they are not. The influenza virus has been our common affliction for thousands of years. If the full historical record is considered, these types of outcomes are not uncommon and should be taken seriously.

Our experience with seasonal flu in the last few decades has followed a comforting norm. While the previously healthy can be infected and suffer some uncomfortable symptoms, a quick recovery is to be expected.

Most of the annual flu fatalities occur in the chronically ill and elderly. However, that pattern is merely chance at work. At many other times in human history, influenza has been a deadly scourge for the young and otherwise healthy part of the population.

Just such an instance occurred during the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. This occurred during the First World War and ravaged worldwide populations. It is believed that 500 million people were infected. The estimate of total deaths ranges from twenty to over fifty million. The pace of this infection was so astounding that more American troops in World War I died of influenza than in battle.

Even now, after much research, the dynamics of that infection are unclear. It is known that there had been mild outbreaks of influenza in the spring of 1918. Yet, few deaths had occurred. However, within a short interval, a new strain of influenza virus suddenly emerged that was incredibly lethal, often leading to death within