Research, monkeys, and influenza

In 1918 there was an outbreak of influenza. That's not unusual. Most winters see a flu going around. That's been true ever since British trading ships began circulating from China back to Europe and the Americas in the late 1700s. You see, birds are the main reservoir for the flu virus and since many birds are migratory, seasonal patterns of flu transmission occur. Many of the flus we experience have their root in shallow Siberian lakes where ducks spend their summer. When the weather turns cold, the ducks migrate to China and infect people with the flu virus, which in turn is transmitted to British sailors and then those sailors would bring it back to Europe with them. Year after year.

Most years not many people died but occasionally the virus would be particularly deadly and hundreds of thousands would die in a pandemic, sometimes, like in 1889, over a million would die. But never in human history has there been as deadly a pandemic as the 1918 flu, often called the Spanish Flu. Estimates of the dead vary from 50 million to 100 million before the virus disappeared. That was 5% of the world population so 1 in every 20 people alive in 1918 was destined to die from this flu. Further, it's estimated that 20% of the population was infected so not much was getting done since so many people were sick.

The reason I bring all this up is that I recently read an article in the January 18, 2007 issue of NATURE about the 1918 flu pandemic. The article outlines the risks and benefits of recent research into the way that the H1N1 subtype (the specific mutation of influenza that caused the 1918 outbreak) spreads from species to species and individual to individual. Apparently the huge change in action from the H1N1 subtype was due to just changes in either one or two amino acids. Just that small a mutation is what killed 100 million people.

Work has been done recently in macaque monkeys--which can catch this type of flu just as humans do--which has demonstrated how the H1N1 subtype does its damage. Most flus are dangerous mostly to the very young and old--people who tend to have immune systems that don't work as well. An average of 36,000 people die each year of flu in the USA, and most of those people are either small children or elderly. H1N1, on the other hand, was most deadly with healthy adults who presumbly have healthy immune systems. The macaque research has shown that the Spanish Flu kills by overstimulating the immune system in what is called a cytokine storm. As a result of this knowledge, a method of treatment using drugs that target over zealous immune response can be implemented if H1N1, or a similar behaving variant, ever breaks out again. This is the opposite treatment as would usually be implemented in flu treatment since you usually want to push the immune system, not suppress it. Which means that typical flu treatment would actually make a case of Spanish Flu worse.

Food for thought...

Comments

Jennifer said…
Very cool...I didn't know all this. I don't like readin' up on flu...it's scary...but forewarned is forearmed, I suppose! :)
Here from Michele's....hope this finds you warm and happy today :)
Jean-Luc Picard said…
I know the 1918 flu pandemic wiped out millions. Coming right after the First World Watr, many lives were lost over those years.

Michele sent me this way.
rampant bicycle said…
Wow! That's...scary!...but oddly fascinating. It's easy to forget how dangerous the flu really IS...you get used to people just having it and getting over it and that's that, you know?

Hello from Michele's! :)
Pearl said…
Very interesting. What happens when the Spanish flu meets HIV? Crest wave doubly or exponentially more dangerous or canceling each other out?
It's a good thing I got my shot this year. Hope you did, too! Stay warm and healthy.
srp said…
Doesn't take much... does it? This is frightening. Think of all the viruses... if even two or three of them can act this same way, we are in for it in the long run.
PI said…
Ji Michels sent me. we get shots everyyear and mostly they work but last year we had to miss Christmas. It was a particularly bad year here but nothing like the awfulSpanish 'flu.
kenju said…
So nature has ways of circumventing our treatments, other than mutation? Sounds like it is purposeful, too. Scary.

Michele sent me tonight.
tiff said…
the earth is a wondrous place...!

I learn so much here!
SassyAssy said…
Utenzi, O Lord of Science, thanks for putting that into a nutshell for me. It was quite fascinating (as usual!). You make science fun. Have a super duper weekend. BTW--I cannot believe you said I needed a steadying influence...hmph!
Becky68 said…
Hi Utenzi, Scary stuff, my grandmother was born in 1918 & was scared to death of the flu because her parents, though they survived, were rather traumatized over their loss of many friends & family memebers. I myself had a particularly virulent strain in 2003 & never want to be that sick again in my life!
Thanks for visiting my blog earlier.
Anonymous said…
Yikes, that's scary! Have you ever read "The Coming Plague"? It's about the development of new diseases as a result of overpopulation and dissapearing rain forests. Fascinating stuff, but frightening too.

Btw, thanks for the comment about Harold McGee, I'm going to see if the library has any of his books tomorrow. :)

Ari (Baking and Books)
Mr. Althouse said…
Clever little buggers, aren't they? If the nasty little virus can't beat us, it joins us and uses our own defenses against us. Brilliant! Who says there is no intelligent life on this planet!

here from Michele's... another smart cookie.

Mike
Oracle said…
I make sure I get a shot every year not totally effective but its the best defence in my eyes.

Here via Michele
Awareness said…
Interesting info.......I find the whole virus pandemic discussions absolutely frightening. I work in the frontlines, and as part of our government network am part of the emergency planning for a future pandemic. When I attend any meetings for updates on the "plan" I just stop listening knowing that we're completely screwed if we think we can put a plan in place...... !!

here from Michele's.....

enjoy your weekend.
Hello from Michelle's!

The whole flu discussion scares me, as I'm asthmatic and probably high up on the list of expected people to not make it to the other side. I have to agree with the people who wish we had a plan in place; stubbornness surely can't be all that'll get me through.
Yaeli said…
And that is precisely why Bird Flu would be so disasterous!!!
Veda said…
Cell mutation is always fascinating - cool post.

Here from Michele's.
indigo said…
When SARs hit, and Singapore was affected, it was a frightening time here. It would be totally horrific if it had gone global like the Spanish Flu. Now with a mutating form of bird flu, that reality is getting closer and closer...
kenju said…
Dave, so you remember the Asian flu that was rampant in 1973? Our whole family got sick and my baby ended up in the hospital for 28 days. It was awful!

Michele sent me.

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