Read an ExcerptLittle Book of Pandemics
By Peter Moore
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008 Peter Moore
All right reserved.
Part Ones Around and About
Three types of influenza virus
First recorded: Hippocrates wrote about a major epidemic in 412 B.C.E.
The influenza virus is a very simple biological particle in that it only contains eight genes, an instruction set so small that it cannot be described as being alive when it is floating freely in the air. However, like all viruses it comes to life when it invades a living cell and hijacks its biological machinery: in a matter of hours, one viral particle can dictate that the cell builds hundreds or thousands more new versions of itself.
For the recorded history of mankind, flu has normally caused only a low level of infection, but it occasionally breaks out and wreaks havoc. The good news about this virus is that most people become immune to it once they have encountered a particular strain. The bad news is that the virus evolves incredibly rapidly, and is constantly forming new strains. If a new strain is similar to one that has existed before, many people will fight it off, but on the occasions when there is a jump change—i.e. a rapidmutation in the virus—it can trigger a pandemic.
Symptoms and effects
If you think you have a "touch" of influenza, you probably don't. Flu hits hard. It will put you in bed for the best part of a week, and leave you weak for days after. As if that wasn't enough, if you get a bad bout you can end up suffering from depression for a further few days.
Extreme outbreaks of flu occur about every 20 to 30 years. There was a massive pandemic in 1918 that killed somewhere around 40 million people; another severe outbreak killed between one and two million people in 1957; and yet another version killed some 700,000 people in 1968. Since then there has not been a major outbreak, but that means that the next one is getting closer.
Developments in treatment
In 1952 the World Health Organization set up a Global Influenza Surveillance Network, which consists of four key centers and 112 institutions located in 83 countries. The institutions collect and analyze samples, and ship any potential new strains to the centers. By monitoring which strains are circulating, experts make educated guesses about which pose the greatest threat in the near future. This information is sent to companies that manufacture vaccines, who then generate products that act against this specific threat. The vaccines offer a high level of protection, but the system only works as long as a new strain doesn't sneak up without warning. If a strain not covered by the vaccine starts to cause widespread disease, the vaccine is effectively useless.
A few anti-viral drugs are now making their way on to the market. Sadly, the rapidly evolving flu virus seems to be capable of side-stepping these with remarkable ease, taking the potency out of these newly hailed "wonder cures."
Excerpted from Little Book of Pandemics by Peter Moore Copyright © 2008 by Peter Moore. Excerpted by permission.
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