OK, so the basic idea for this new project I'm working on is to Educate the Masses. One of the ways I intend to do this is to get a blog and then post essays on it. But, since at the moment I have no blog, I'm going to post them here. I've already posted one on St. Columkill, (but that was actually a school paper, not intened to be posted on the web). The one I'm posting this time is on (my favorite subject-- you guessed it!) Influenza.
Everyone gets sick at one point or another. Coughs, colds, the flu, all are considered annoying and harmless. Some people actually don't mind getting the previous two, since they could then get the day off work or school and spend it in front of the TV. Most people, though, agree that the flu is not something to wish for. What they don't realize is that while coughs and colds are annoying, they are relatively harmless, unlike the flu. Influenza, from which the abbreviation 'flu' comes, can be one of the most deadly diseases know to mankind.
There are, in general, three major strains of influenza: A, B, and C. Of the three, the C virus is the most harmless, generally causing some respiratory problems, if it causes any at all. The A and B viruses, however, are quite another matter. Types A and B are the strains which cause pandemics. One of the main reasons for this is because types A and B "mutate."
Mutation is when DNA is changed during replication. Cells and viruses copy their DNA in order to reproduce, and sometimes the DNA will be copied incorrectly, thus causing a mutation. Mutation in influenza is not a good thing because, when it mutates and changes slightly, it becomes harder for our bodies defensive systems to recognize. This is why vaccines only work for one year, and why you need a new one each year. The vaccines only work for a specific strain of Influenza, which changes from year to year, slowly mutating.
An entirely new strain of influenza comes into being when two kinds mix. This is able to occur more often than one would think, due to a particularly frightening trait of Influenza: it has the ability to jump from one species to the next. Let's say, for example, that a bird has caught a strain A. Then let's say that a person has another, slightly different strain A. On their own, both are relatively harmless, since our immune systems are aware of both of them and have fought them off before. Now, let's say, this person is living in close proximity to a pig. Let's pretend that the bird is, too. The pig catches the influenza from the bird, and then catches it from the human as well.
The pig now "acts like a big mixing bowl" and the two viruses intermingle, creating an entirely new strain, the like of which has not been seen before. It is almost impossible to be immune to it, since our bodies have never had to deal with it before. Because of this, it travels quickly, spreading from human to human at an alarming rate. Since so little is known about it, it is almost impossible to make a vaccine.
This is called an "antigenic shift," and is what causes pandemics.
Throughout history, we find cases of pandemics. The single most famous is undoubtedly the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death.
(On the Bubonic Plague, as written by the wonderful Steve Silverman:) "The death rate was 90% for those exposed to the bacterium. It was transmitted by the fleas from infected Old English black rats. The symptoms were clear: swollen lymph nodes (buboes, hence the name), high fever, and delirium. In the worst case, the lungs became infected and the pneumonic form was spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or simply talking.
From the time of infection to death was less than one week.
There were three major epidemics - in the 6h, 14th, and 17th centuries.
The death toll was 137,000,000 victims."
What is surprising, though, is that this is not the worst that has happened. The largest pandemic in recorded human history happened less than one hundred years ago, and no one seems to know about it.
The great influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more than half a million people in the United States alone, thus making it the least affected country that was hit by the Spanish Influenza Pandemic.
A timeline of this horrific event (as found on pbs.org) is as follows:
In March, a soldier at Fort Riley, Kansas, went to the camp hospital complaining of a fever, sore throat, and headache. By noon, there were more than 100 soldiers in the hospital with similar conditions. By the end of the week there were over 500.
In Philadelphia, public health officials issued a health-bulletin about "the so-called Spanish Influenza," in July.
In late August, on board the Receiving Ship at Commonwealth Pier in Boston, soldiers began reporting to the hospital wing with common symptoms of the grippe. Not long afterwards, there were so many cases at Commonwealth Pier that 50 people had to be transferred to a different hospital. By now, people suffering from the flu were saying that they "felt like they had been beaten all over with a club."
September is a full month. First, "Dr. Victor Vaughn, acting Surgeon General of the Army, received urgent orders to proceed to Camp Devens near Boston. Once there, what Vaughn saw changed his life forever: 'I saw hundreds of young stalwart men in uniform coming into the wards of the hospital. Every bed was full, yet others crowded in. The faces wore a bluish cast; a cough brought up the bloodstained sputum. In the morning, the dead bodies were stacked about the morgue like cordwood.' On the day that Vaughn arrived at Camp Devens, 63 men died of influenza."
And that was just the beginning of September.
By the end of the month, only six months after the first case in America was reported in a military base near Boston, many cities around the country had been infected. First at Harvard University in Cambridge, then Massachusetts, then Philadelphia. Health officials were alerting news papers, and broadcasting ways to both recognize and attempt to fight the disease. Bed rest, aspirin, and salt of quinine were among the things recommend by Dr. Blue (US Surgeon of the United States Public Health Service) to fight the pandemic.
On the second day of October, Boston registered 202 deaths. The city canceled its Liberty Bond parades, sporting events, closed its Churches, and put the stock market on half-days. On the sixth, Philadelphia posted "what would be just the first of several gruesome records for the month: 289 influenza-related deaths in a single day."
Later, New York's death toll for one week rose to 851, while in Philadelphia, the death toll was 700 times higher than usual.
The total number of casualties due to influenza in October, 1918, is 195,000. It was the single most deadly month in the history of the United States.
When World War I ended in November, San Francisco had a fiesta in the streets. 30,000 people poured out of their homes to celebrate, every man, woman, and child among them wearing a facial mask. On November 21, sirens were sounded to let the people of the city know that it was now both safe and legal for them to remove the protective masks. By this time, 2,122 had been killed by the disease.
5,000 more cases of influenza were reported in San Francisco in December.
And that was just the first year.
In all, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed a worldwide total of more than 25,000,000 people. That's more than every combat casualty in the 20th century combined.
Today, influenza is still occasionally fatal, though not nearly as much as during one of history's pandemics.
But are the pandemics over?
In 1997 alone, there was almost a pandemic, started in Asia. It would have been particularly lethal, since the highly contagious A virus jumped directly from birds to humans, skipping out on the usually necesary pigs to transmit it. Officials were able to narrowly miss another pandemic by ordering the slaughtering of birds, both infected and otherwise, in a large area of Asia.
As of this very moment, we are yet again threatened by an avian (bird) carried virus, jumping directly from fowl to humans. When the death of a boy was reported in Thailand on the 26 of January (2004), officials said that it could take longer than six months to prepare and perfect a vaccine for the new virus. Countries were urged to take precautions and slaughter their domestic birds, though it was believed that the virus was, in fact, being carried by wild water fowl.
Clearly, this is no common cold we are dealing with. The human race has pulled through before, we'll do it again if need be. Hopefully, disaster will be adverted, and all that we'll need to deal with will be the common flu viruses, treatable with the current vaccines. That, and pray that there's no need to do anything else.
And, because it's the way I am, here are a few ideas for other essays. Tell me which ones you'd like me to do, or size the day and do one as well! :D
Life in England during the Dark Ages
A history of the English Crown
St. Peter's Basilica
Life of a Saint
Culderas (Yellowstone Culdera)
The America system of government
How computers work
Classic written word
History, historical person/event
(man, do I sound bossy or what? Sorry about that. . .)