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Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It 1st Edition

182 customer reviews
ISBN-10: 0743203984
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Editorial Reviews Review

Feeling tired, achy, and congested? You'll hope not after reading science writer Gina Kolata's engrossing Flu, a fascinating look at the 1918 epidemic that wiped out around 40 million people in less than a year and afflicted more than one of every four Americans. This tragedy, just on the heels of World War I and far more deadly, so traumatized the survivors that few would talk about it afterward. Kolata reports on the scientific investigation of this bizarre outbreak, in particular the attempts to sequence the virus' DNA from tissue samples of victims. She also looks at the social and personal effects of the disease, from improved public health awareness to the loss of productivity. (The disease affected 20- to 40-year-olds disproportionately.)

How could this disease, now almost trivial to healthy young people, have become so virulent? The answer is complex, invoking epidemiology, immunology, and even psychology, but Kolata cuts a swath through medical papers and statistical reports to tell a story of an out-of-control virus exploiting an exhausted world on the brink of transition into modern society. Through letters, interviews, and news reports, she pieces together a cautionary tale that captures the horror of a devastating illness. Research marches onward, but we're still at the mercy of something as simple as the flu. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"It was a plague so deadly that if a similar virus were to strike today, it would kill more people in a single year than heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease combined." Between 20 million and 100 million people worldwide died in the 1918 flu pandemic, but for years afterward this deadliest plague in history was almost completely forgotten. Histories and even medical texts rarely mentioned it. This disconnect between the flu's devastation and its obscurity is the starting point for Kolata's incisive history. She explains how the plague spread, covers the various speculations about its causes and origins and gives an account of the search to retrieve a specimen of the virus strain once genetic science had advanced enough to unravel the virus's mysteries. Tissue samplesAfrom an obese woman buried in the permafrost of Alaska and from two soldiers who died in army campsApreserved by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in thumb-sized bits of paraffin prove to be the last remaining sources of the 1918 strain. Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times and author of Clone, profiles the scientists who tracked down these samples, follows their investigations and explains their conclusions. Could such a deadly flu appear again? Many scientists fear it could, hence their quick response to the 1997 outbreak of chicken flu in Hong Kong, which led to the slaughter of 1.2 million birds and, Kolata argues, averted another worldwide disaster. Clearly explaining both the science and the social toll of the pandemic, Kolata writes an admirable history and soberly spells out how the U.S. government is preparedAor unpreparedAfor a similar public health threat today. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone; 1 edition (January 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743203984
  • ASIN: B0001OOU7E
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (182 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,248,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Michael Beverly on January 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
First off, this book is some things and is not some things. It is very informative and was well researched, there are lots of footnotes at the end. Much of the chapters read as separate articles that could stand independently. What it is not is a novel like read similar to the story that appears in Hot Zone.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning about the 1918 flu and about the modern researchers trying to find clues to what made that flu so deadly. If you are interested in knowing about that topic then I give this book a strong recommendation. If you are looking for a novel type page turner you'll probably be disappointed.
There was one situation that made the whole work worth reading to me, maybe because I have a weird sense of humor. That was the telling of two separate research expeditions into the frozen north to dig up bodies of people that had died of the 1918 flu. One team was filled with experts, used x-ray to search, spent years planning, spent tons of money, had tons of media present. Didn't get results, the bodies were too decomposed.
The other expedition was one guy with a pick. Well actually he got a few villagers to help him dig, but he spent only a few thousand of his own money and got results, real helpful results, in a couple of weeks.
I also found the detailing of a flu scare that happened in Hong Kong with a jump from chickens to humans a very interesting story. How that scare and the research that went into studying it and comparing that to the 1918 ordeal was fascinating.
There is a bit of information here about the politics of the Swine Flu panic in the 1970's and how the Ford administration dealt with it. Some of the same kinds of questions and issues are relevant today with all the threats of toxic warfare.
If you find the topic of the 1918 flu interesting and how it relates to modern day problems and solutions this book is a strong recommendation.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Flu" needs some serious editing, beginning with Kolata's annoying repetition of words and phrases. I lost count of the number of times "haunt", "haunted" or "hauntingly" is used (Kolata has a penchant for the pathetic). "He spends his spare time with his wife and young children ..." she writes in one sentence, only to begin the very next sentence with "In his spare time, he composes music ..." Just what does he (virologist Tautenberger) do in his spare time - compose music with his family? Is it relevant anyway? More significantly, Kolata's discussion of the extraordinary virulence of the 1918 influenza is muddied and contradictory. In her concluding chapter she states categorically, and with no further explanation, "There is no reason to believe that pigs gave it to humans ..." Later in the same chapter one reads, "... the 1918 flu resembled a bird flu but it could not have come directly from a bird - it had to have been adapted and modified first by growing in humans or pigs." For a more enlightening discussion of this theme see the brief chapter on influenza in Prof. Michael Oldstone's "Viruses, Plagues, & History", where the concept of "antigenic shift" is introduced. "Flu" is short on history and shorter still on science. The writing is sloppy and sophomoric. Nonetheless, Kolata's portraits of some of the researchers studying influenza are interesting, and far worse books on the disease have been written ("The Plague of the Spanish Lady" comes to mind).
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By J. Barcelo on January 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found this book to be disappointing.
Given the rich material at the heart of the flu story (molecular biology, genetics, virology) I had hoped that this science would, albeit at a layman's level, be the center of the story. Instead the book is largely a collection of anecdotes about a subset of those who tried to reconstruct the virus. Such material could better have been dealt with, more briefly, in (for example) a New Yorker magazine article.
One exception - the last 10 pages describe some of the scientist's insights into how this virus might have become so lethal. The too-brief discussion of these theories provides the reader with some food for thought. It is ashame that the author included so little material of this type.
Summary - if your interest is with the people involved in this detective work, this book is worth a read. If your interest is in the underlying science this book will likely disappoint you.
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81 of 98 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover
In this book she covers what seems the entire history of influenza, which includes the greatest pandemic in history in 1918-1919, the swine flu scare in 1976-- she even goes into litigation over the vaccine-- attempts to dig up bodies killed by the 1918 virus and sequence its genome, none of it in depth. In all of the footnotes for this book, there is not a single one for a primary source regarding the pandemic itself. No diaries, no lab notes, no original letters. There's hardly a reference to a contemporary newspaper. In fact, her notes cite interviews with a historian who wrote about the pandemic. Gina Kolata is a reporter, and this is a glorified newspaper story, expanded. Too bad. The subject itself is of interest.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
For those familiar with the intricacies of the 1918 flu, this book may not be one to keep on the bookshelves. However, for those (such as myself) who know about this pandemic only peripherally, it was an entertaining and engaging introduction to the devastation of the 1918 influenza epidemic. But most intriguingly, this book places the 1918-19 pandemic into the current world view of disease and how we can and should respond to it. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I appreciated very much reading about the swine flu vaccination fiasco and the subsequent "bird-flu" interventions. What this book has done for me is ignited my interest in studying it further (is there any greater compliment?) and introduced me to some of the scientists investigating the pandemic currently (though I do agree with a previous reviewer that the depiction of Dr. Duncan was a bit inappropriate). But most importantly, the pandemic is interpreted in the science and medicine of today, with an eye on the future. I would heartily recommend this book to people interested in medicine, immunology, or virology....especially if they, like I, have not been introduced to this topic in their schooling. And now I am going to order the Crosby book!
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