In this season we like to hear the bells ringing. They signal that hope matters—that some individuals and institutions continue to care. One unexpected place to find talk about bells and care in on Flu.gov: what to do about the flu, this day December 23, 2013. The history of influenza is told with it devastating, killing 50 million in 1918-1919, less than 100 years ago and more recent pandemics of 1957, 1968, and 2009, and the expected mutation of the flu virus in the future. The virus causes serious illness and spreads easily from person-to-person worldwide.
In today’s post titled We Heard the Bells: The Influenza of 1918, we are reminded that this country’s numbers of the 50 million dead in 1918 and 1919, “reached 675,000 – five times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in World War I” and that the “disease seemed to target young adults and pregnant women, leaving many young children without mothers or fathers.”
This article then asks: “Where did the 1918 influenza come from? And why was it so lethal? What can be learned from those who survived the 1918 pandemic?
“We Heard the Bells, narrated by award-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order), explores the personal and family experiences of a diverse group of Americans during the influenza pandemic of 1918. History unfolds as survivors of the pandemic tell their stories. Their memories frame the key questions that still drive the search for answers to help us weather the current H1N1 pandemic and future flu pandemics.
“The survivors of the pandemic whom we met came from very different circumstances culturally and geographically. They spoke about their experiences with different accents, but their memories had so many common threads,” says Lisa Laden, We Heard the Bells producer. “I was particularly struck by how often survivors remembered the pandemic in terms of its sounds: bells, hammers, shovels, the voices of men coming in tired after attending to the victims. I was also impressed by the resiliency of the survivors.”
Later in this article it tells us that in the 1918-1919 pandemic “An estimated 500 million people, one third of the world's population (approximately 1.6 billion at the time), became infected. There were few communities that were sheltered from the waves of deadly disease that swept around the world. The pandemic spread to the Arctic, and to remote Pacific islands.
“We Heard the Bells chronicles Dr. Johan Hultin’s expedition as a graduate student to a remote Alaskan village that was nearly wiped out by the pandemic. His 1951 attempt to find live virus from the 1918 pandemic fails, but his return to the site 46 years later is crucial in helping molecular pathologist Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger to sequence the genome of the 1918 flu virus, the culmination of a ten year effort.
“Prior to Dr. Hultin’s retrieval of Alaskan native tissue, scientists only had a thumbnail of tissue to try to sequence the 1918 virus. Dr. Hultin’s expedition provided large sections of tissue, so that scientists were able to sequence the genes of the virus. ‘We have seen an explosion in information about influenza in the last 10 years or so, because…of sequencing of the 1918 virus…’ says Dr. David Morens, Senior Scientific Advisor, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“In 1918, as now, most people did not think of influenza as a disease that could lead to death. In fact, complications from seasonal flu typically cause an average of more than 200,000 hospitalizations every year in the U.S., and an average of 36,000 people die from those complications."
Fifty million deaths of 1918-1919 and those since make the case that no one cares, yet what choice do we have but to care for those suffering and dying and those without family members to help the living? So far the best we as a mature people can do is to create new vaccines to fight the expected virus mutations, one by one, until the researchers find a universal vaccine. Faith and doubt has little to do about this but to keep the bells tolling for hope that is sounded by science.