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Recent Readings

Book review: Darwinia
Reviewed: Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer reading: Spin
Reviewed: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Reviewed: Tuesday, July 18, 2006

the Omnivoire's Delimma
Reviewed: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

the Golem's Eye
Reviewed: Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The Great Influenza
Sunday, May 1, 2005

The American flu vaccine brouhaha and worries regarding the Asian bird flu have produced a small industry of books about the great flu epidemic of 1918. I recently finished John Barry's excellent work (though this, this and this look interesting too). It's a wonderful book that traces the history of Western (allopathic) medicine through the ages, outlines influenza's amazing tricks, renders personable the scientists, doctors and volunteers who fought to understand, control and treat the disease and also paints a picture of America in a time of change and political unrest. I thought that the current Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, word twisting (OK, lying) and smearing was unequaled but I now believe that life was actually much worse under Wilson. Back then, of course, they had a real war to fight and everyone was called upon to do their patriotic duty (and if you didn't, you might find yourself in jail, ostracized or worse). Complaints and criticism were labeled unpatriotic (doing the Kaiser's work) and it wasn't pretty.

But the politics in the book is only a sideline used to help explain how the disease spread in America and from American via the tremendous mobilization and dissemination of the armed forces. It was an awful illness. It killed an uncounted number of people and was usually worse amongst those between 20 and 40 -- the ones with the strongest immune systems. These people would die because the strength of their own immune response was so powerful that they literally ripped their own lungs to shreds. It killed so many that whole communities were left bereft. The death rate was high in America and Europe and even higher in China, India and other nations.

Even in this age of AIDS and jet plane borne exotic diseases, we've forgotten how illness can strike us low. It's ironic that the true victors in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds are not humans -- we cannot defeat the martians -- but microbes. The Great Influenza reminds us that medicine cannot cure all and that the cry of the epidemiologist in the wilderness is one worth hearing.


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Copyright -- Gary Warren King, 2004 - 2006