The influenza epidemic of 1918 and early 1919 killed over half a million people in the United States at a time when the population was one third of what it is now. It's hardly brought up now, although it took more American lives than were lost in World War I. The deaths piled up so quickly in some areas that there was no time for funeral services.
We know now that influenza -- or "the Spanish flu" or "the grippe" as it was called -- is spread by bodily fluids left by sneezing or by touching some contaminated surface. It's a virus. Nobody knew it then. They didn't know what cause it or how to stop it.
Viruses still plague us today because they're hard to deal with Some look like strands of spaghetti and others look like basketballs on stilts. They don't reproduce themselves the way living organisms do. Instead, they invade a healthy cell, take over the mechanisms of reproduction, and force the cell to produce many more viruses until the infected cell more or less explodes and releases the new generation of viruses to take over still more cells.
They're uncanny things, viruses. Antibiotics are worthless. We can treat the symptoms sometimes, we can protect ourselves with vaccinations, but we can't kill them. They hang in the interstitial space between living things and inorganic materials. If you dry out the tobacco mosaic virus it simply turns into a crystal -- a dead crystal.
The 1918 epidemic was pretty much universal. Eskimo villages lost most of their adults. And that was one of the curious features of this particular outbreak. Today's mortality rates are highest among the very old, the very young, or those already stricken with another illness. In 1918, it hit everyone, including young healthy adults and especially pregnant women.
It's an interesting program with engaging interviews. One expert especially, a Swedish doctor who excavated corpses in a remote Eskimo village, is fascinating to listen to, and sometimes amusing.
Much of the time is given over to the efforts now being made to identify viruses and develop virus-specific vaccines that will protect us from other lethal endemics. Most deadly viruses can be traced back to the animals that originally carried them. The animals didn't suffer much because they had already built up protective immune systems.
It's when the virus is transmitted to humans, who have no immunity, that the serious trouble begins. What might cause a goose or a beetle no more than mild distress can be lethal when picked up by humans.
I wish the program had spent more time on this relationship between infected animals and vulnerable humans. Homo sapiens is now entering and disarranging habitats that contain organisms that we don't even know about, let alone studied. A new species of primate was recently identified in the Amazon rainforest, now undergoing rapid destruction. The same is happening in Africa. HIV may have been carried by chimpanzees.
The program concludes with descriptions of how far our treatment of viral diseases has come. It would have had more resonance, at least with me, if it had stepped up from details of the virus to the ecosystems in which they are found, and the danger to Homo sapiens of reckless intrusion into habitats where small things like viruses may be more dangerous than big things like tigers.
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