Bird Flu Alarm

Understanding Avian Influenza

1918 Spanish Flu killed 30-40 million people

1918 Spanish Flu killed 30-40 million people

In 1918 - 1919 a virus swept around the world that caused what became known as "Spanish flu". Over 18 months it is estimated that 400 million people became infected of which 30 million died - which is 600 times the number of Americans who died in the entire 10 year Vietnam War. 675,000 Americans died of Spanish flu, of which 200,000 died in October of 1918 alone. People often died very rapidly, and many of the victims were young - in contrast to normal flu which is most dangerous to the old.

"As their lungs filled . the patients became short of breath and increasingly cyanotic. After gasping for several hours they became delirious and incontinent, and many died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth. It was a dreadful business." Isaac Starr, 3rd year medical student, University of Pennsylvania, 1919 commenting on flu deaths he saw

The 1918 global flu pandemic spread in the age of horse, boat and train - and at a time when the world population was only a third of what it is today. If such a virus was to re-emerge, perhaps as a mutation of Bird Flu, it could spread far faster, and kill up to 100 million people.

Reports in October 2005 suggest that the genetic profile of bird flu is almost identical to that of the 1918 virus - which has been obtained from the sample of a victim preserved in permafrost.

The work involved researchers from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), the CDC, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, MD, PhD, chief of molecular pathology at the AFIP, one of the study leaders, commented:

"These H5N1 viruses are being exposed to human adaptive pressures, and may be going down a similar path to the one that led to the 1918 virus," Taubenberger said in a news conference. "But the H5N1 strains have only a few of these mutations, whereas the 1918 virus has a larger number."

Our only real defence against viral illness like flu is the immune reaction we develop in response to infection. But if a flu virus changes shape as a result of a new mutation, our immune system fails to recognise it and has to develop a new response, which takes time. That means we go on catching flu over and over again, with little or no immunity from previous attacks unless they are recent.

If the virus is dangerous enough, you can be seriously ill or dead before your own white cells have had a chance to mobilise. And some viruses are immune to your own immune defences - like HIV - so that they kill slowly, even though the body is producing a strong reaction.