Britain’s Channel 4, whilst known to have more than its fair share of nit-wit journalists, does nonetheless turn out some splendid documentary programmes. The best of the current crop being a series called ‘Secrets of the Dead’ which attempts to explore the science behind great disasters of the past.
This past week (and I cannot help wondering if the scheduling was more than coincidental) they devoted themselves to the great Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918/19 that swept right around the globe and claimed some 20 millions lives. Or at least, that is the death toll that I believed was generally accepted but, according to this documentary, the real toll was between 50 million and 100 million! If that is so then surely it must rate as the single most lethal pandemic in history? Not to mention that fact that, coming hot on the heels of World War I, it has to be the biggest ever kick in the head.
But here is the rub, because according to the senior virologist advising the documentary makers, there is some convincing evidence that the troop concentrations of World War I is what led to the outbreak:
John Oxford and his team found pathology reports from an army camp in Etaples, northern France, that have given him vital clues about the origin of the 1918 pandemic. Etaples was a huge army camp, almost the size of a city. 100,000 soldiers, well and wounded, moved through the camp daily. To supply food to this number, the army installed piggeries at the camp. There is evidence that soldiers bought live geese, chickens and ducks from the local French markets. Crucially, there were lots of opportunities for a flu virus to move from bird to pig, to soldier. Indeed, in the winter of 1916/1917, Etaples pathologists describe a disease-like flu that ended in heliotrope cyanosis and death. John Oxford believes the weight of evidence points toward Etaples as the viral mixing bowl that produced the 1918 strain of flu.
Mr. Oxford also adds,
‘If we had another influenza pandemic, and we will have another influenza pandemic, I think it will make the HIV outbreak almost look like a picnic.’
Blimey! The only thing missing from that is the spooky background music. Still, TV producers do like to spice up their dry-as-dust science programmes with a bit of melodrama and, let’s face it, general doom-mongering has probably overtaken fly-fishing as a favourite recreational activity. But I would more prepared to let this slide into great public melee of cried havoc were it not for the persistant, and increasingly troubling reports, of SARS:
Dr Carlo Urbani, a 46-year-old Italian and an expert on communicable diseases, had identified Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in an American businessman admitted to hospital in Vietnam in February.
Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore are all confining people to their homes if they have been exposed to the disease.
Isolated cases have been identified in Europe and North America.
Of course, SARS (the technical name for which is ‘shitscarey-itis’) appears to be a virulent form of influenza or pneumonia and we’ve got very large troop concentrations indeed in Iraq and the surrounding vicinity. Who was it that said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme?
Now I am not about to get all wild-eyed and apocalyptic on you. In fact, as soon as I have finished posting this I am going to go to bed and sleep like a baby. Also, and let me be quite emphatic about this for the benefit of the ‘quagmire’ lovers out there, there is no comparison whatsoever between the current hostilities in Iraq and World War I and I do believe that SARS has, in fact, been knocking around South-East Asia for quite a few months but we’ve only recently got to hear about it.
But, crystal-clear distinctions aside, nobody is going to tell me that there isn’t just a hint of eerie resonance here.