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1918 Spanish Flu Holds Clues to Future Pandemics


As the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu continues to spread from Asia to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, there have been many predictions of viral mutation, human-to-human transmission, and a pandemic. VOA's Jim Bertel reports that those predictions are based on more than scientific hypothesis.

As the First World War was coming to an end in 1918, an even deadlier calamity was spreading around the world. A flu virus, unlike any before it, was infecting groups of people across the globe. By the time the so-called "Spanish Flu" pandemic was over, a fifth of the world's population had been infected, and perhaps 40 million people were dead.

Only recently have researchers unraveled the genetic code of that virus, determining what experts had long feared: the 1918 pandemic was caused by bird flu

"The 1918 genetic picture suggests to us that this was a different formation, that this was an entirely bird-like virus that ultimately adapted in all of its genes to humans,“ says Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

He led the team that decoded the 1918 virus. His team discovered a number of mutations that were key in adapting the virus from birds to humans, traits shared by the current H5N1 strain of bird flu.

"The H5 viruses, especially some of the more recent ones, share some of those mutations, suggesting that they might be acquiring some changes that would make them more easily adapted to humans. So that's a very worrisome situation for us," said the doctor.

"When you look at 1918, you also realize most of the victims were males in their 20s to 40s” according to Dr. Joxel Garcia, Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization. “And there is speculation that was probably because they were soldiers or people living in close quarters."

Dr. Garcia warns that the movement of people, whether soldiers or tourists, would be just one factor in the spread of a future bird flu pandemic.

"Even if we were static, just the migration of the birds would increase the risk of this flu arriving everywhere," he adds.

For this reason, health experts believe if the current bird flu virus becomes transmissible person-to-person, containment through quarantine is unlikely to work.

Of further concern, Dr. Garcia says a vaccine cannot be developed until the pandemic pathogen reaches this stage. At that point, it could take months to create and manufacture an effective vaccine, although scientists are working hard to speed up the process. If they cannot, governments will face a tough issue:

"But the second part, which is going to be the most difficult question to answer is the ethical part. What countries are going to have priorities; within the country, who is going to be a priority?" posed Dr. Garcia.

Whether or not the H5N1 bird flu virus will ever mutate into a pandemic is still uncertain. But most health officials agree that no matter how good modern science is, a future pandemic is inevitable.