The Great Influenza / Flu - SRH group read

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The Great Influenza / Flu - SRH group read

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Edited: Feb 2, 2014, 1:12 pm

This is one of the 1st quarter 2014 options for Science, Religion, & History. Some people already had one or the other book about the 1918 flu epidemic, so it is a theme read than a specific book read; feel free to add another book to the set.

The Great influenza by John M. Barry

Flu by Gina Kolata

Die Spanische Grippe by Manfred Vasold

Science, Religion, & History planning thread.
Science, Religion, & History 2014 book list

Feb 2, 2014, 4:36 pm

Hmmm, I need to see what I can find at my library.

Feb 2, 2014, 4:38 pm

Ooh, I've been looking for a good excuse to read the Gina Kolata book! I shall put it on the stack forthwith.

Feb 2, 2014, 4:43 pm

I've read part of the Barry and most of the Kolata and, since these both concentrate on the US, I'm looking forward to hearing about the Vasold.

One interesting aspect of both the Barry and the Kolata was that there seems to be as many social science problems as there are science problems with epidemic control.

Feb 2, 2014, 4:59 pm

I've got the Valold book now, so I should be starting in a week or so. (I'm glad to read something I can get from the library,. and saw little point in buying something that was mostly US.) I'll do my best to report on what it says.

Feb 2, 2014, 7:41 pm

I read the Kolata book a few years ago and absolutely loved it. It might be time for a re-read.

Feb 3, 2014, 7:27 am

6: The problem with the Kolata book is that it is now seriously out-of-date, so unless you are re-reading for the pleasure of the history, you might want to turn your attention elsewhere for how things are going in the influenza prevention world.

Edited: Feb 5, 2014, 6:16 pm

I knew that things were bad by the end of the war, but not this bad: (October 1918) 'For three days no coal has reached Vienna. The ration is now 1/4kg flour, 1/2kg potatoes, 20g margarine, 5g meat per person per week. Next month we'll get 750g brown sugar. And then the fle epedemic, no milk and not enough medicines!'

A weekly magazine (Dec 1917) recommends Sparrow soup as a special treat for Christmas - take one sparrow and 1/4 l water per person ...

Hygeine was bad, too, with soap also rationed - 50g of poor quality a month. Not only flu, but several other diseases were killing people.

Edited: Feb 7, 2014, 5:19 am

I've finished Die Spanische Grippe : Die Seuche und der Erste Weltkrieg now, and it will go back to the library later today.

His final conclusion is that the flu may have speeded up the end of the war. The war may have speeded up the flu's transmission around the world, or possibly slowed it down. The US had a higher rate of deaths than Europe: it started there and the US had the Native Americans, who like other similar groups around the world had more deaths. Indeed in some groups over 20% of the population died. The high numbers of young people who died certainly made a difference in Europe between the wars. And it's high time more research was done on all of this in German-speaking Academia.

I am just overwhelmed by the figures from around the world. I don't know how you even begin to imagine,'The steamer came to Samoa. The flu took off and it is estimated that 90% of the natives fell sick.' 'In Nome 176 of 300 Inuit died.' 'In Aukland, New Zealand, hospital a special ward was set up for flu patients. It was soon full with nurses as of the 180 nurses in the hospital, 140 fell sick with the flu.' ...

Again and again he discusses the lack of doctors, but as he also mentions the highly questionable treatments, the lack of doctors may not have been such a bad thing in this case.

The book is well written, I'm just overwhelmed, though at how much misery and disaster can be fit into a book of only 140 pages.

Feb 7, 2014, 7:32 am

It's interesting that your book says that it started in the US. I'm getting the two English language books confused, but at least one of them says that it started as a milder flu in Spain six months before it hit the US.

In the US, the war definitely made it worse, since it happened during the drafting of the soldiers to go to Europe. Many, many men were in training camps where the virus was easily spread and quarantine was really impossible. (Not that good quarantine was being observed elsewhere. There is a particularly frightening discussion of the failed attempts to quarantine Philadelphia in the Barry book.

Doctors or no, there really wasn't a lot that they could do for a viral infection--except immunization and they really weren't able to isolate the virus. Kolata talks about several early attempts to do that.

Frankly we don't have that much more we can do now. We can isolate viruses and produce vaccines faster, but it's still slow. We can probably keep people alive with respirators for longer allowing them to get better on their own (which is actually the plan here in the US for a first wave pandemic flu). Of course we don't have enough respirators or beds, though there are plans for maximizing those resources as much as possible (at least in New York State where we actually spend money on plans for these things. Don't know what it's like in the Libertarian red states.) And Americans in general suck at quarantine procedures (during the bird flu epidemic, I saw US border guards at the US/Canada border make people throw out chicken sandwiches instead of asking people about their health).

It certainly was frightening to read about how bad things can get.

Feb 11, 2014, 9:41 pm

I've read the first two sections of The Great Influenza. It places the starting point in Haskell County Kansas (though not with 100% certainty) and from there to a military base 300 miles away.

I'd been more or less aware of the state of medicine, but not that Johns Hopkins University was at the cutting edge of radical improvements.

The section about the flu virus reminded me of a Scientific American article from a few years ago with helpful graphics. It's in the January 2011 issue, which annoyingly is not fully accessible without a subscription, but two graphics are here and here.

Edited: Feb 12, 2014, 12:43 am

That sounds like what my book said. I think it specified Kansas and the nearby base. It just didn't get into the news until a Spanish royal came down with it.

Mar 4, 2014, 7:32 pm

Phew! Finished The Great Influenza. Glad I read it, but I'm not sure how much I absorbed. He says in the acknowledgements that he began with a theme that expanded in different directions and the writing took seven years. Which kinda shows. The details detract from clarity.

Mar 4, 2014, 7:51 pm

I've dipped into both The Great Influenza and Flu by Gina Kolata, and the second does seem a little more readable. I think I'll probably be continuing with that one and not the Barry, at least for right now. Thanks for the feedback!

Karen O.

Mar 31, 2014, 3:54 pm

I have finished The Great Influenza (while battling with Flu myself this month). I won't be reviewing any of my March reads, just posting my rating (3*) here.

Mar 31, 2014, 4:02 pm

>15 PiyushC: I intend to review it... but I haven't written any March reviews either.

Apr 5, 2014, 10:41 am

I've just started reading Flu. The magnitude of the outbreak and the numbers of dead are amazing.

If anyone is looking for a more updated version of the science, I strongly recommend Spillover by David Quammen.

Apr 5, 2014, 7:13 pm

I finally got started on The Great Influenza. I am also amazed at the magnitude of the pandemic. I was ignorant that the state of medicine in the US was so dismal even after it was improving in Europe. Johns Hopkins is obviously a well-respected institution, but I didn't know it was the first really "real" scientific medical school in the country. I'm looking forward to learning quite a few things here.

Apr 6, 2014, 2:22 am

There was a very good one column piece in the March issue of BBC History.

Re 'Spanish' flu: This said that as a neutral country, the Spanish media were honest about the figures. Everyone else denied the problem because of military censorship.

Apr 18, 2014, 12:31 am

Finished the book today. I thought it was good but not great, and mostly interesting. My main "wow" point was a discussion about how the work being done on the development of disease treatments in the pre-antibiotic years dealt with manipulation of the immune systems. Once antibiotics were developed, medicine focused on killing the microbes that made us sick. But now, with drug-resistant bacteria becoming a major concern, scientists are going back to the same approach of boosting immune responses that was in use at the time of the 1918 pandemic.

#19 This point about the "Spanish flu" and the openness of the Spanish media was also made in the book. The author had little good to say about the way the newspapers handled news of the epidemic in general - especially in the United States.

Apr 18, 2014, 5:48 am

>20 sjmccreary: I think my opinion about the book, quite concurs with yours.

Edited: Apr 28, 2014, 9:46 am

I have a chapter or two to go in Flu by Gina Kolata. Like others, I agree there is not a lot of info about the 1918 epidemic, but what there is, is staggering. 19,000 dead in NYC; in the US there were more dead that those killed in WWI or WWII. Globally, more dead than in WWL and WWLL combined.

I find it interesting that it is the beginning of certain diseases being reportable by law to a government agency. That's clearly key to being on top of future epidemics.

I'm also finding the history of reconstructing the RNA of the 1918 influenza virus quite interesting. It's a great detective story, and highlights some of the problems with modern science: the political realities of publishing in the big journals, and the competition between groups to publish. I'm not finding anything too out of line with the science, although I haven't read the last few chapters yet.

Several of the researchers say their imaginations were caught by a book called America's Forgotten Pandemic. Has anyone read that one? I may have to hunt down a copy.