cover image Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Laura Spinney. PublicAffairs, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-61039-767-4

The deadliest event of 1918 was not the continued fighting of WWI but the Spanish flu, which affected one third of the world’s population, killing over 10% of its victims. This is no longer a controversial assessment, notes science journalist Spinney (Rue Centrale) in an often disturbing account that begins in prehistory and continues to the 21st century. It is now generally accepted that the first case of Spanish flu occurred in an American military camp in March 1918. By May Spanish flu had spread worldwide. Symptoms (including fever, headache, cough, and body aches) were miserable but rarely fatal, and the number of cases declined over the summer. But it returned in autumn, far worse and deadlier. Unlike ordinary influenza, this variant tended to kill young adults, sparing children and the elderly. Spinney’s book contains vivid journalistic accounts of outbreaks around the world, from the U.S. to China, India, and Persia. Medical science helped only modestly, as political considerations (including wartime censorship), tradition, and racism all trumped safeguards, as when authorities in several countries stopped the publication of details on the epidemic’s spread. Readers may squirm during Spinney’s long final section—an insightful description of the subsequent century, during which researchers have teased out the Spanish flu’s cause, developed a marginally effective vaccine, and worked to ameliorate future influenza epidemics, which are inevitable. [em](Sept.) [/em]