Multimedia Review

Book Reviews

Am Fam Physician. 2000 Jun 1;61(11):3489-3490.

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

By Gina Kolata. Pp. 330. Price, $25.00. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 19 Union Sq. West, New York, NY 10003, 1999. Phone: 212-206-5327. ISBN: 0-374-15706-5.

Imagine that one day, out of the blue, people begin falling ill. The illness starts with simple flu symptoms but, in some people, rapidly progresses to death. In those unlucky victims, the disease causes the lungs to fill with fluid, in a few days for some, in only hours for others. In one autumn month of 1918, in Philadelphia, nearly 11,000 people die. In one day, 759 deaths occur. To add to the horror, rather than preying on the elderly and children, this disease seems to kill the healthy young and middle aged. The disease spreads rapidly, reaching the most remote outposts imaginable. In a small Eskimo village in Alaska, for example, adults begin coughing on Monday and, three weeks later, 72 of the 80 adult villagers are dead, leaving behind 46 orphaned children. Doctors, hospitals and morgues all over the country are overwhelmed. Cities close theatres, restaurants, churches and, in fact, any place where people are wont to gather. No one knows the cause of the disease or how to end it. Even the military draft is suspended, amid World War I. Doctors try desperate measures, concocting crude vaccinations consisting of the blood and mucus of the sick in an attempt to inoculate patients. And then, as quickly as it started, the disease is over. It vanishes, leaving a stunned population behind, struggling to forget the horror of both war and pestilence.

Gina Kolata's new book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, vividly describes how this calamity, the most deadly pandemic our country has ever faced, affected society. It offers not only an apocalyptic vision of the course of the disease, but also details the ongoing efforts to track down its source. The quest to understand the unparalleled virulence of the 1918 influenza strain has motivated dedicated researchers for decades. With the advent of techniques unimagined in 1918, researchers have now begun to get a handle on the 1918 flu.

Kolata tells how an American military pathologist used a massive warehouse of tissue samples to find fragments of the 1918 virus that had been preserved in paraffin blocks. Using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process to amplify the small scattered fragments of virus in lung tissue samples, researchers have the opportunity to unlock the secrets of this illness. The author draws a wonderful picture of two expeditions whose goal was to gather additional lung tissue samples from bodies buried in 1918 in permafrost. One expedition was mounted on the spur of the moment by a retired pathologist and cost about $4,000. The other was a massive expedition, taking years to plan and execute, that moved in the glare of publicity covered by the world's media, and cost at least half a million dollars. Guess which one found the virus.

In addition, Kolata explores the intimate relationship between pigs, fowl, humans and the influenza virus. She describes the intense search for the source of a new and deadly strain of flu that killed a young child in Hong Kong in 1997. Luckily, that turned out not to be the index case of the next influenza pandemic.

The book taps into the general concern of epidemiologists—that people may once again start dying from a new and lethal strain of influenza—a fear that surfaced when political, legal, economic and medical agendas collided some 20 years ago to create the infamous swine flu debacle, which was motivated by fear of a repeat of the 1918 pandemic.

Flu is a great read, although following the machinations of the swine flu episode can be slow. This subject touches a chord in us today, when we are no longer quite so confident of our ability to outwit disease as we were in the days before Ebola, antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus species and reports of horrific diseases concocted in the Soviet Union's massive biological weapons programs (diseases that some believe are being replicated in other laboratories throughout the world).

My only complaint about this book is that it was written just a little too soon. We become fascinated by the medical detective work, but the book ends before the culprit is really identified. At the final page, researchers are still working hard to determine what it was about the 1918 influenza virus that made it so deadly, but they don't yet have any real answers. The book concludes on a frustrating note.

Next fall, you may want to put this volume in the waiting room of your office practice. Compliance with influenza vaccination might improve markedly.

Also Received

Ambulatory Care Management and Practice

By Albert E. Barnett & Gloria Gilbert Mayer. Pp. 525. Price, $99.00. Aspen Publishers. 200 Orchard Ridge Dr., Gaithersburg, MD 20878. Phone: 800-638-8437. ISBN: 08342-03138.

Cherry and Merkatz's Complications of Pregnancy

Edited by Wayne Cohen. Pp. 902. Price, $155.00. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 227 E. Washington Sq., Philadelphia, PA 19106-3780, 2000. Phone: 800-638-3030. ISBN: 0-683-01673-3.

Coeliac Disease

By Geoffrey Holmes and Carlo Catassi. Pp. 78. Price, $19.95. Health Press, 870 Market St. Ste. 720, San Francisco, Ca. 94102. 2000. Phone: 800-538-1287. ISBN: 1-899-54123-3.

The Credentialing Handbook

By Sheryl Deutsch and Christine Mobley. Pp. 563. Price, $79.00. Aspen Publishers, 200 Orchard Ridge Dr., Ste. 200, Gaithersburg, MD 20878, 1999. Phone: 800-638-8437. ISBN: 0834-209330.

Defending and Preventing Health Care Fraud Cases: An Attorney's Guide

By Kevin J. Darken. Price, $149.00. Aspen Publishers, 200 Orchard Ridge Dr., Ste. 200, Gaithersburg, MD 20878, 1999. Phone: 800-638-8437. ISBN: 0-834-21171-8.

Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics

Edited by Mark Levine, William Carey and Allen Crocker. Pp. 912. Price, $140.00.3d ed. W.B. Saunders, The Curtis Center, 625 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. Phone: 800-782-4479. ISBN: 07-216-71543.

Diabetes Management: Clinical Pathways, Guidelines and Patient Education

Edited by Jo Gulledge. Price, $69.00. Aspen Publishers, 200 Orchard Ridge Dr., Ste. 200, Gaithersburg, MD 20878, 1999. Phone: 800-638-8437. ISBN: 0-834-21703-1.

Expert Guide to Allergy and Immunology

Edited by Raymond G. Stavin, M.D. and Robert E. Reisman, M.D. Pp. 236. Price, $35.00. American College of Physicians, 190 N. Independence Mall, West Philadelphia, PA 19106-1572. 1999. Phone: 800-523-1546. Product #: 330-300-180.

The Harriet Lane Handbook (15th ed.)

By George K. Siberry and Robert Iannone. Pp. 1072. Price, $ 34.95. Mosby Inc, 11830 Westline Industrial Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146. 2000. Phone: 800-426-4545. ISBN: 0-323-008127.

Herbal Medicinals: A Clinician's Guide

Edited by Lucinda G. Miller, Pharm.D., Bc.P.S. and Wallace J. Murray, Ph.D. Pp. 383. Price, $39.95. Haworth Press, 10 Alice St., Binghamton, NY 13904-1580. 1998. Phone: 607-722-5857. ISBN: 07890-0466-6.

Immortality: How Science is Extending Your Life Span and Changing the World

By Ben Bova. Pp. 283. Price, $13.50. Avon Books, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022, 2000. Phone: 212-207-7000. ISBN: 0-380-079318-0.

Leisure in

Contemporary Society

By K. Roberts. Pp. 250. Price, $30.00. Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10016-4314, 1999. Phone: 212-481-7018. ISBN: 0-851-99338-9.

Managed Care Strategies

By George B. Moseley, III. Pp. 609. Price, $79.00. Aspen Publishers, 7201 Mc Kinney Circle, Frederick, MD 21704. 1999. Phone: 800-638-8437. ISBN: 08342-07354.

Mission Management: A New Synthesis

Edited by Roger J. Bulger, Marion Osterweis and Elaine R. Rubin. Pp. 264. Price, $25.00. Assoc. of AcademicHealth Centers, 1400 Sixteenth St. N.W., Ste 720, Washington DC 20036, 1999. Phone: 202-265-9600. ISBN: 1-879-69412-3.

Nutritional and Environmental Influences on the Eye

Edited by Allen Taylor. Pp. 285. Price, $129.95. CRC Press, 2000 N.W. Corporate Blvd., Boca Raton, FL 33431-9868, 1999. Phone: 800-272-7737. ISBN: 0-849-38565-2.

Orthopaedics in Primary Care

Edited by Gerald G. Steinberg, Carlton Makins, and Daniel T. Boran. Pp. 436. Price, $75.00. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 227 E. Washington Sq. Philadelphia, PA 19106. 1998. Phone: 800-638-3030. ISBN: 0-683-302582.

Peaceful Dying: The Step-by-Step Guide to Preserving Your Dignity, Your Choice, and Your Inner Peace at the End of Life

By Daniel R. Tobin. Pp. 224. Price, $14.00. Perseus Books, 1 Jacob Way, Reading, MA 01867, 1999. Phone: 800-386-5656. ISBN: 0-738-20034-4.

Rapid Access Pediatrics: A Companion Handbook to Oski's Pediatrics

By Loren D. Walensky. Pp. 608. Price, $29.95. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 227 E. Washington Sq., Philadelphia, PA 19106-3780, 1999. Phone: 800-638-3030. ISBN: 0-781-71914-3.

Say Good Night to Insomnia: A Drug Free Program Developed at Harvard Medical School

By Gregg D. Jacobs. Pp. 219. Price, $13.00/19.50. Henry Holt and Company, 115 West 18th St., New York, NY 10011, 1999. Phone: 888-330-8477. ISBN: 0-805-05547-9.

The 36 – Hour Day

Nancy L. Mace, M.A. and Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H. Pp. 338. Price $ 39.95. Johns Hopkins University Press 2715 No. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218-4319. 1999. Phone: 410-516-6900. ISBN: 0-8018-61497.

You Glow, Girl!

By Diane York-Goldman and Michell P. Goldman, M.D. Pp. 281. Price, $22.50. Quality Medical Publishing, Inc. 11970 Borman Dr. Ste. 222, St. Louis, MO 63146. 2000. Phone: 314-878-7808.. ISBN: 1-57626-094-1.

Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions

Article Tools

  • Print page
  • Share this page
  • AFP CME Quiz

Information From Industry

More in Pubmed

Navigate this Article