A still-unsolved medical mystery, expertly told: What caused the influenza pandemic of 1918, a disaster that dwarfs every other epidemic in this century? And could it happen again?
New York Times science reporter Kolata (Clone: The Road to Dolly, 1998, etc.) was a microbiology major in college when the scope of the 1918 flu deaths first hit home for her: “It was a plague so deadly that if a similar virus were to strike today, it would kill more people in a single year than heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease combined." In spite of the illness’s devastating toll, the origin of the 1918 flu remains a mystery. Was it a mutation in an ordinary human flu virus that caused a transformation into a global killer? Or was it a crossover from an animal disease, like the variant of swine flu that has been investigated as a possible culprit? An especially perplexing aspect of the disease is its W-shaped death curve: There were peaks for children under five years, and for the elderly ages 70 to 74 years—but also a middle peak for 20-to-40-year-olds, a surprisingly vulnerable group. Those trying to determine the mode of transmission were unable to devise any method (and Kolata relates in revolting detail a number of failed attempts) to infect healthy subjects with the disease. Throughout, she provides a number of hair-raising descriptions of the disease, which eventually afflicted more than 25 percent of the U.S. population. Along the way, readers also get a picture of the research world: At one point, many of those studying the elusive influenza viruses dropped that work to go after HIV. “Every virologist loves a new virus," confesses English scientist John Oxford, and they mistakenly thought HIV was an easy cure.
Kolata’s is a knowledgeable voice, and her enthusiasm for the chase draws us into the intrigue. Her frightening conclusion? It could happen again, at any time.