The Spanish Flu

The year is 1951. Although campfires have
warmed the frozen ground enough to dig into the decades-old mass grave, a young doctor
finds what he had been looking for: the corpse of a young girl. Blue dress, red ribbons in
her hair. Would this child’s body hold the key to saving millions of lives? Fast forward to 2016. Twenty year old Brittany
Andersen, a healthy, active young house cleaner in Milford, Iowa, felt a rasp in her throat.
After taking some over-the-counter medicine she felt better and went on with her day. When her symptoms returned the next morning,
her mother Franki took care of her like any loving parent would. A little food, off to
bed, check on her regularly. It’s just a cold, right? But before noon Britt was unresponsive and
had no pulse. Doctors restored her pulse and flew her to
a hospital, but Britt’s body had been taken over by sepsis. In sepsis, chemicals are released
into the body to fight an infection such as her flu, resulting in inflammation potentially
leading to multiple organ failure. Her heart stopped beating twice within just
a few minutes, and she couldn’t be stabilized. Brittany Andersen had gone from perfectly
healthy to dead within two days. Every year this story plays out all over the
world during the seasonal flu outbreak. And the 2019 US flu season is off to an early
and unusual start. The number of flu cases in the US doubled
in the week before this recording. And currently most cases are Influenza B, which normally
comes on months later in the Spring. If Influenza A spreads with its usual earlier timing, the
combination of the two may prove very serious. In the 1918 flu pandemic (nicknamed “The
Spanish Flu” because of increased news coverage when it moved from France to Spain), more
US soldiers died of the flu than from that year’s combat in World War 1. An estimated
one third of the population of the world was infected, and fifty million people died. The flu killed so many people that in the
US alone the average life expectancy was lowered by over 12 years. In the small village of Brevig Mission, Alaska,
90% of the adult population died in the 5 days from November 15th through 20th. A hillside
mass grave marked only with small white crosses remained as a grim reminder for the eight
remaining adults. Permafrost, a thick subsurface layer of soil
remaining frozen throughout the year, preserved the diseased corpses for decades, and in 1951
Swedish microbiologist Johan Hultin excavated the grave in hopes of retrieving the virus
for study. After two days of using campfires to thaw
the frozen earth enough to dig, Hultin recovered that little girl’s body. In the end he was
able to retrieve lung tissue from four other bodies as well. During the return journey to the University
of Iowa, Hultin attempted to re-freeze the lung tissues with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher
during the propeller-driven plane’s frequent refuelings. Back in the lab, he used his mouth to attempt
to draw virus into a glass pipette, a practice not considered safe by today’s standards. Ultimately, his injection of infected lung
tissue into chicken eggs failed to regrow the virus. His first expedition had failed. 46 years later, Hultin returned to Alaska
to try again. He was now 72 years old, financed the expedition with about $3200 of his own
money, and took his wife’s garden shears to help with the work. After about five days, he found the body of
an Inuit woman 7 feet below the surface. Nicknamed “Lucy”, she had been an obese woman likely
to have died in her mid-twenties after coming down with the flu. Her lungs had been perfectly
preserved in the frigid conditions. As this was 1997, Hultin was able to preserve
the tissues using more advanced methods and get them into the hands of other researchers. Ten days after sending the samples, the word
came back. This expedition had not failed, and Lucy’s lungs had provided invaluable
genetic material from the great 1918 pandemic. Of course, 1918 was far from the last flu
pandemic. The 1957 pandemic resulted in another million
global deaths. In 1968 another million. A less severe pandemic in 2009 resulted in
a third of a million deaths in its first year. Are you getting your flu shot? If not, why
not? Let’s hear about it in the comments below. Scientists urge us not to fall into to the
tragic belief that the problem has been solved and that we can avoid vaccination, because
vaccination itself is part of what protects humanity from the most severe outcomes. In the 1918 pandemic, neither antibiotics
nor flu vaccines existed at all, and much of the medical establishment was occupied
due to World War 1. Penicillin would not be discovered until a decade later, for example. Many improvements have been made in the following
century, and annual vaccines are made available for flu strains considered to be among the
most likely during the upcoming flu season. The particularly young and old are the most
vulnerable, and many otherwise healthy children die each year within one to four days of catching
the flu. Much, but not all, of this could be prevented
if more people would be vaccinated early in the season and take care to avoid transmission
to others when they get the flu. Vaccination also tends to make symptoms less severe in
people who do get the flu. But alas, many people refuse vaccination.
Many people don’t even wash their hands after using the bathroom. Many people go to
work and school while sick, spreading contagious illnesses to others. Some people are simply ignorant of the importance
of vaccination, proper hygiene, and avoiding exposure of others to their illnesses. Some reject the urgency of vaccination for
various reasons, including some who assert that vaccines don’t work, may be harmful,
or are even tools of evil government conspiracies. And some people are just stubborn. So, despite the widespread availability of
vaccines and an ever-growing body of research, the flu rampages around the world every year.
In the 2017-2018 flu season, about 80,000 people in the US died as a result, and most
of the 185 children who died hadn’t been vaccinated. Even today, a pandemic can overwhelm the health
care infrastructure of relatively wealthy nations, resulting in tremendous loss of life
and severely impacted quality of life for survivors. During a pandemic, doctors, nurses, and other
healthcare professionals may not only be overextended due to the increased number of patients, but
even be increasingly exposed to illness themselves. Vital services may become less available or
unavailable, as people are too sick to work or simply dead. Ultimately food supplies and other resources
may result in famine conditions at least in the short term. Can scientists beat the flu? Why don’t more
people vaccinate? If you enjoyed this topic, you may like our
videos on famine, parasites, and dysentery. Some of us here have been enjoying the channels
“In 2 Minutes” and “Gabbin with Gavin” featured on our home page. As always, thanks for watching Bad Discoveries!

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