SPANISH, ASIAN AND BIRD
Tolstoy is reputed to have said ‘History would be a fine thing, if only it were true’. Santayana said that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Tolstoy was being a bit cynical I think, there is some good history. I hope Santayana was wrong but am afraid he might not be. The thing that has triggered this week’s musings is the constant flow of report and comment about Bird Flu. I think we need to look at a bit of history……
In March 1918 at Camp Funston, Kansas, USA a few men went down with influenza. By the end of 1918 a world-wide pandemic was raging that killed more humans than any previous recorded. Estimates vary but between 20 and 40 million people died, mostly young people and the frail elderly. As it was wartime, the first place it was freely reported was in Spain and hence it got the name ‘Spanish Flu’. Pravda in Moscow reported that ’The Spanish Lady is in town’ when it reached Moscow.
In 1980 Emma Clark told me about Spanish Flu in Barlick. “Oh it was shocking, shocking. People said that you could see funerals going down Skipton Road every day.” Almost everyone in the town lost a friend or a relation. This intrigued me and I looked into why this strain of flu was so much more dangerous than normal winter flu. In 1918 nothing was known about viruses and their ability to mutate but in the light of today’s knowledge, we can at least give an explanation.
There are three strains of flu virus; A, B and C. B and C infect only human beings, it is the A strain that can cause the trouble because it has the ability to infect birds, animals and humans. The normal A strain flu virus has the ability to mutate and does so slowly all the time. When it infects us we produce antibodies which kill the virus and give a measure of protection against re-infection. The thing that made the 1918 strain so deadly was that it was a very virulent strain and most importantly, it had mutated so violently in its transgenic path that nobody had any antibodies that had any effect on it.
Even today, the true origins of the mutated virus which caused the pandemic have never been found. The most widely held version is that pigs in Iowa developed a form of Flu, passed on possibly by avian or human transmission, and for some reason this mutated and jumped the species barrier into humans. Current investigations using sophisticated DNA techniques are being pursued in Alaska where bodies of those who died there from the disease have been preserved in the permafrost. It was confirmed recently that DNA had been recovered and the Spanish Flu virus reconstructed. I hope they have it in a very secure laboratory.
This is why scientists are getting so exercised today about the possibility that the virus causing ‘Asian Bird Flu’ (Avian Flu A/H5N1) might perform the same trick of transferring to humans. It is possible, but not certain, that one case has been found of cross-infection within a family. If it has, the genie is out of the bottle and the question becomes not if we get a Flu pandemic but when. I don’t think anyone needs to underline the speed at which such infections can travel by air travel. The eventual answer will be a vaccine but the problem is that until the exact strain is known, anti-viral drugs which can be given to relieve the symptoms can’t be relied on to be effective and vaccines can’t be produced. The government say they are doing the next best thing by arranging with drug companies to set up production lines for the vaccine now so that the lag between identification of the strain and production of the vaccine is minimised if the need arises.
So, one of the facts that emerges from the morass of rumour and speculation is that whatever the flu strain that hits us, it won’t be Avian Flu A/H5N1 but a mutation. Perhaps we ought to give it a different name.
So what can we do to help ourselves? The first thing is not to panic. We don’t know what the virulence of the mutated virus will be until it strikes. There is no reason to suspect that it will be as bad as 1918 and medical science has progressed since then. I had Asian flu in 1958, Arthur Morrison told me that it was a severe case but I survived with bed rest and plenty of fluids. Hopefully, the antibodies my system created then might have some benefit in any new outbreak. My instincts tell me that the more healthy I am when it strikes, the better I will cope with it, so it may well be that our best long term defence is to look after ourselves now, eat well and take plenty of exercise. One of the things that all the experts agree on is that frequent hand-washing in soapy water is one of the essential preventative measures. It could be simplistic thinking like this that makes the difference. The great thing is that even if I am wrong it can only do you good.
This is a fairly gloomy account so I think I ought to end with my flu story. I was telling Fred Inman about flu and Arthur Morrison; “You remember when that Asian Flu were on, round about 1957 or something like that, and I had that you know and oh my God I were poorly. I could just about crawl upstairs and that were all and I remember Arthur came to see me and he played hell wi’ me. He says, “You know what your trouble is, you‘ve never had anything wrong with you and now you’ve got flu you think it’s the end of the world. Stay in bed, drink plenty and take aspirin and stay there for a week, you’ll be all right, I’m not coming to see you again”.
Well, it must have been thirty years later, I called up at Windy Ridge at Thornton to see him and Kim, his wife. I went into the kitchen and she was cooking something, she were doing something on the kitchen table and she says “It’s no good coming to see Arthur, he’s in bed with flu”. I said, “I’ll go and sick visit him, do you mind?” she says “No, I’ll be pleased for anybody to go and see him he’s as miserable as sin”. I says “Oh, I’ll cheer him up”. I went upstairs and I didn’t realise but she followed me up, she was stood behind the door. Anyway, I walked in and he’s laid in bed and oh God he looked miserable! He’s grey and sweating and coughing and spluttering you know. I says “Now then Arthur, what’s up, touch of flu?” He says “Oh God, I’m bad!” I said “You know what your trouble is don’t you, you’ve never had anything wrong with you and now you’ve a touch of flu you think it’s the end of the world. Drink plenty, take aspirin and stay in bed till you’re better!” He sat up in bed, he was mad you know, he said “Fat lot of good you are!” I said “That’s exactly what you told me thirty years ago when I had Asian Flu in 1958. You’ve got your own medicine back now and I’m going to go and have a cup of tea with Kim and then I’ll go.” I walked out and Kim was behind the door, she said “You’ve just done right.”
I’ve just remembered the story about John Wilfred Pickard during the Asian Flu epidemic. He went into his waiting room and announced that he suspected they all had flu and so did he. He said “I’m going to go home, get straight in bed and drink plenty of fluids. I suggest you do likewise.” With that he left them to it. We could perhaps do worse than follow his example.
SCG/21 October 2005