We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

No war for flu!

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.

8 comments to No war for flu!

  • DCE

    I belive it was Albert Einstein that said “History does not repeat itself. It merely rhymes.”

  • Sandy P.

    But our guys eat a lot of MREs, so we’ll see how it goes.

  • John B

    Your point is well-taken. We live in a credit economy and have been doing so since the end of the Great Depression. The cycles have repeatedly wiped the slate “clean” as successive waves of creditors in one form or another have taken hits. Typically, the losses have been spread about among populations who are powerless to resist, and/or absorbed by the tax codes. Nevertheless the bubble continues to grow.

    When I use credit I am, in effect, creating money. I have received the good or service using money that I expect to receive in the future, money that does not yet exist. At the same moment, I have created the additional “money” that is raised in the form of interest promised. The transaction is recorded as “accounts receivable” and treated as cash. From that point on, this phantom value is based on nothing at all.

    One of the reasons that businesses are salivating at the idea of going to China is that it represents the largest cash economy on the planet. Imagine what happens when we teach that population how to use credit! There is enough phantom value there to last for generations!

  • Julian Morrison

    [paranoia mode=”on”]
    If I were to be making a bioweapon attack, I’d forgo all the hard to get and well known old diseases like smallpox, and go for an enhanced strain of ordinary common flu – a disease with a long pedigree of spreading itself without the need of assistance. And I’d launch it, by means of infected suicide-volunters, in a place all of: populous, low tech, barely governed in the hinterlands, and highly connected to the rest of the world. Like, say, southeast asia.

  • Ernie G

    From what I have read about it, it was not simply the concentration of troops that caused the Spanish Flu to arise, but the combination of troops and geese and swine and unsanitary conditions. Avian flu does not infect people, and human flu does not infect geese, but pigs can be infected by both varieties of flu. A pig infected by both types of flu simultaneously can furnish an environment in which the flu viruses can interact and produce a mutation. This process is statistically unlikely, or inefficient, but it can produce a new virus after many thousands of “trials.” Thus, many years can elapse between successive outbreaks.

    As to the notion of history repeating itself, it is worth noting that SARS is believed to have gotten its start in China, probably in a collective farm with people, pigs, and geese in close proximity in the presence of unsanitary conditions.

    To use an earthquake analogy, SARS is probably just a mild tremor. When will The Big One arrive?

  • Just on a side note, Etaples was also the scene of a mutiny in 1917 due in large part to the brutal conditions there. The story is best known from the BBC series “The Monocled Mutineer”. Public records on the mutiny won’t be released until 2017.

  • Byron

    To use an earthquake analogy, SARS is probably just a mild tremor. When will The Big One arrive?

    Agreed. Most SARS victims recover anyway, only a small percentage die from it. Even influenza epidemics are worse.


    If this was a bio-terror attack, it was highly ineffective. More likely it’s just some randomly mutated bug that humans picked from animals in unsanitary conditions. One of the many that we’ll probably see over the years.

  • annie24

    SARS has a mortality rate of ~3-4%. we don’t know what percentage of people exposed catch the disease.

    The Spanish Flu is believed to have had a mortality rate of ~1-2.5%. (in some isolated populations of native Alaskans the mortality rate approached 60%) the world population in 1918 was 1.9 billion, 1 billion caught the flu and estimates vary from 20-50+ million deaths.

    we should worry about SARS–the potential impact on the health care system is huge. Even if people don’t die, sick people require care and occupy hospital beds.