Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PBS: "Influenza 1918"

On Monday, Jan. 18, PBS station WMPT in Maryland reran the one-hour American Experience documentary film “Influenza 1918)”, directed by Robert Kenner, tracing the history of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic. The best link, with the show transcript, is here. You can watch the video online with bonus material in author and director interviews, and you can purchase the DVD.

There was a mild outbreak that started at Fort Riley, Kansas, in the spring, literally as a dust storm cleared. It gave some previews of its deadly nature then, but then subsided for the summer, to come back with full horror in the fall. The virus seemed to strike young adults the hardest, ironically because their immune systems, in their lungs, reacted so vigorously with a “cytokine storm”, drowning them in their own fluids in hours. The virus seemed to mutate into deadlier forms in Europe because of crowded conditions on the WWI front, and the country was preoccupied with war. President Woodrow Wilson had to send more troops over to replace those who had died of influenza, making a decision to send many GI’s to certain death.

The pandemic was caused by an influenza-A virus of subtype H1N1, the same subtype as the apparently milder 2009 pandemic, sometimes called “swine flu” this year. Wikipedia estimates that 10-20% of those infected in 1918 died, some in a few hours. The loss of oxygen and circulation did damage to those who lived; some lost all their hair.

The film provides an indirect warning to the effect that we had better get busy with a vaccine for H5N1 ("bird flu") as endemic in Southeast Asia but not readily transmittble person-to-person yet. But H5N1 (not the same as H1N1) could mutate and become a pandemic at any time. Even today.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of a chart showing mortality from the epidemic, here.

American Experience offers this YouTube trailer:

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