05 September 2010

Only Influenza

I've only gotten the flu once. It was winter, December of 2004 or 2005. Sunday night i went to bed with a bit of a headache and a scratchy throat. No big deal. Monday morning i woke up with a fever and achy all over. For the next 7 days i felt terrible. Hot then cold, exhausted but unable to sleep, headaches, muscle aches, shakiness, coughing, congestion. Pretty much every body part/system but my digestive was affected. While not the worst i've ever felt, it was pretty bad and not something i want to repeat. So reading a whole book about the flu was a bit of a challenge.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry covers many topics. It is the story of the flu pandemic that spread through the world in 1918. To cover the story of the illness you have to cover the doctors who treated it and searched for a cure. So you have to cover how medical education in America went from being a profession anyone who could pay the fee could enter to being science based and rigorous. And you have to talk about the political situation and censorship in WWI America. And how technology was rapidly changing. And then there is the disease process itself. This book covers so much territory it would be easy to get confusing or boring.

It doesn't become either. i found it completely fascinating. As the title says, there was a massive epidemic of flu. With America's mobilization for war and new transportation capabilities it spread quickly. It was lethal in a different way as the majority of deaths occurred to those between 20-34, as opposed to normal flu which kills the elderly and young children, usually from complications like pneumonia. And it was rapid, sometimes killing within a day of the first symptom. Hospitals were completely overwhelmed. Politicians made mistake after mistake, censoring news of the illness to try to keep up morale, continuing to ramp up the army even as the war was almost over. Doctors and nurses literally sacrificed themselves to their patients. The brilliant medical minds throughout the world tried to fight the problem. Their research later led to major discoveries about humanity.

It is 460 pages with an additional 60 pages of notes and bibliography and it really could have been longer. I kept mentioning various tidbits to B: your lungs, when healthy, are sterile; many medical schools in the 1800s didn't require any college education and none required science courses; influenza mutates so fast that more than 90% of the replicated viruses don't work. I wanted to take notes. I want to read more about the various groundbreaking research doctors. I went looking for a biography of Anna Williams, a vaccine expert who created a diptheria antitoxin, but there doesn't seem to be one. Perhaps i should look up one on diptheria.

This will be my second book for the Science Book Challenge and a 6. If you liked things like The Hot Zone you will probably enjoy this one too.

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