In 1918, just as the world was beginning to feel hopeful that the most devastating war of all time might be coming to a close, an even bigger disaster began to unfold. ‘Spanish flu’ – which historians now believe actually originated in either Kansas or China – raged across the globe, leaving up to 100 million dead in its wheezing, sneezing wake. Within a few months, far more men, women and children lost their lives as a result of a virus than they did from enemy action.
This might strike us as sad, especially if we’ve grown up with family stories of ancestors who perished in the pandemic, but still it feels like a sepia-tinted tragedy that has nothing to do with us. Really, though, we should not be so complacent, warns Dr Jeremy Brown, a senior British-born emergency medicine doctor working in the US. In this authoritative yet highly readable book, Brown explains that flu, as we like to call it, is still a killer (30,000 people died of it in America last year), and will inevitably strike again soon. And it’s no good thinking that modern medicine will have the answers this time around either. Antibiotics are useless in combating a virus, and this year in the States, the flu jab turned out to be effective in only a third of cases.
That’s because the flu virus is constantly mutating, finding new ways to survive. One of the most thrilling chapters in the book concerns Brown’s description of the activities of scientists in the Nineties who dug up victims of the 1918 pandemic whose bodies had been buried in the permafrost – mostly Native Americans living close to the Arctic Circle. Samples taken from their corpses were used to genetically decode the virus. From here it became possible to map the way that more recent variations such as avian flu and swine flu have arrived in our midst, causing the kind of panic familiar to our great-grandparents. Brown, though, is critical of the pharmaceutical industry’s glee in rustling up ‘flu scares’ every decade or so. He is also quick to remind us that things were much worse 100 years ago, when more people died as a result of their treatment than the illness itself. The well-to-do were advised to drink champagne after a vomiting episode, which left them more dehydrated. Others were given aspirin at ten times the safe dose, leading to organ failure. Enemas and blood-letting were popular treatments too – both served to weaken the patient further. These days we have… nothing much, actually. And that, suggests Brown, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because flu is best treated by staying at home, resting and drinking as much water as you can bear. A curse, because doctors feel compelled to hand out antibiotics (useless) and anti-virals (pretty useless) to patients who insist that there must be something that can make them feel better. The result isn’t simply a huge waste of money but also the terrifying prospect of other deadly, but treatable, diseases becoming resistant to whatever the pharmaceutical industry has to offer. Part science, part history, part politics and part expert advice, Influenza is exactly the book you want to read when you’re tucked up in bed, feeling feverish. It is a bracing reminder that, unless you are very unlucky, you will be feeling much better this time next week.