cover image Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

Gina Bari Kolata. Farrar Straus Giroux, $25 (330pp) ISBN 978-0-374-15706-7

""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."" Between 20 million and 100 million people worldwide died in the 1918 flu pandemic, but for years afterward this deadliest plague in history was almost completely forgotten. Histories and even medical texts rarely mentioned it. This disconnect between the flu's devastation and its obscurity is the starting point for Kolata's incisive history. She explains how the plague spread, covers the various speculations about its causes and origins and gives an account of the search to retrieve a specimen of the virus strain once genetic science had advanced enough to unravel the virus's mysteries. Tissue samples--from an obese woman buried in the permafrost of Alaska and from two soldiers who died in army camps--preserved by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in thumb-sized bits of paraffin prove to be the last remaining sources of the 1918 strain. Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times and author of Clone, profiles the scientists who tracked down these samples, follows their investigations and explains their conclusions. Could such a deadly flu appear again? Many scientists fear it could, hence their quick response to the 1997 outbreak of chicken flu in Hong Kong, which led to the slaughter of 1.2 million birds and, Kolata argues, averted another worldwide disaster. Clearly explaining both the science and the social toll of the pandemic, Kolata writes an admirable history and soberly spells out how the U.S. government is prepared--or unprepared--for a similar public health threat today. (Nov.)