Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You think THIS flu season is bad...

Is it?  I'm unsure.  I was sick for a week in the beginning of February, and I had a few questions as to whether it was the flu itself or just a bad virus.  Most of the afflicted called it "the law school plague" so I stuck with that.  Either way, my cat appreciated the time sitting in bed with me because I lay completely still, in contrast to when I have energy or the will to live.

Whatever sickness I had, it didn't compare to the pandemic that swept the globe in 1918.  Historian John Barry gives us a comprehensive and compelling account of the widespread illness in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, a title completely devoid of hyperbole and drama.  I bought the book from a Chelsea Barnes & Noble that shut down during the early days of the recession, and later heard it referenced by President Bush in an address about avian/swine/panic flu as a book that would inform and comfort us during such hypochondriacal times.  I'm proud that he read the book (it's pretty long), but had a significant number of Americans followed his advice and read it, they would not have felt much better about a possible flu pandemic.

That's because John Barry, who's a fantastic writer, delivers all aspects of the story - how the flu spread so easily with the movement of troops during World War I, the attempts by the country's most brilliant doctors and scientists to fight it as it spread out of control, the virus' science fiction-y ability to mutate and attack more effectively once humans find some sort of solution or relief, and most of all, the disgusting, bloody, deadly symptoms.  This strain, which is closely related to the swine flu but hit a world far less prepared to cope with it, brutally attacked not only the typically vulnerable population of the very old and the very young, but felled young adults and those in middle age.

This made the flu atypical and mysterious - even shocking - to those following and studying it at the time.  Barry tells the story not only of individuals trying to get out ahead of the virus, but the way the pandemic shaped medical education in America, including the founding of Johns Hopkins medical school and the establishment of the public health system in New York City.  Barry does a decent job of explaining the science of this flu in layman's terms, although I read more slowly through the science of antigen drift and infectious disease.  This could also be blamed on the fact that Barry's narrative moves, it really moves.  As the disease spreads, real-life heroes in labs and in the field chase it around the globe and through its eerily intelligent and rapid evolution, and try to fashion remedies and vaccines just in time.  The unevenness in the narrative is therefore borne of necessity.  We have to have the facts behind the story in order to understand it; and the story itself, almost unbelievable in its drama, reads like a thriller.


Beth said...

This seems quite informative. Is it just me or do you tend to research plague and sickness when you're actually really sick? I remember I was stuck in bed for 3 days, a couple of years ago, and searched the web, watched documentaries, anything I could find. It was ridiculous, but entertaining! Thanks.

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