Pigs & Pneumonia: Brief History of the Flu

A sick day off work sounds glorious until the real thing actually hits you: runny nose, pounding headache, nausea, and a cough that feels like rusty nails scraping against your throat. You’ve been here before, as have many of us: you have the flu. And so begins a week of binge watching sad daytime soaps, eating ice cream, and generally doing nothing but feeling sorry for yourself. There’s no denying how much of a drag getting the flu is; it is enough for flatmates to avoid you, quarantining you from the rest of the house, wiping down every surface that you’ve touched. But perhaps that’s an overreaction. The flu isn’t fatal, it’s just a pain in the arse, another inconvenience like having an iPhone 4 in a city full of iPhone 7’s. Yet, as unbelievable as it seems, this same virus once killed off a third of the world’s population.

What we commonly call, “the flu”, is actually short for influenza, an Italian word meaning “influence”. The name caught on due to an early belief that the illness was caused by astrological influences. Of course we now know that the flu is a respiratory illness caused by the virus entering the nose or mouth and binding itself to other cells. Once there, the virus starts mutating and converting normal human cells into copies of the virus. Suddenly, from your lungs up, you have less working cells than you did before and begin to cough and feel lousy. None of the basic symptoms of the flu are that life-threatening; it’s the virus’ damage to the immune system that makes you susceptible to more dangerous complications like bacterial pneumonia. A common misconception is to ascribe vomiting and diarrhea to the flu, but if you suffer from those, I’m sorry to say mate… you’ve got something else.

Due to genetic drift, the flu is always evolving and trying to become the most bastardly form of itself for humanity to deal with. That’s why new flu vaccinations come out each year. Because of the ever-changing nature of flu, humans have been dealing with it for centuries and, quite possibly, thousands of years. Early history of the flu is disputable due to influenza’s symptoms being similar to other respiratory diseases. Nevertheless, Hippocrates in Ancient Greece recorded the symptoms of the flu in 400 BC. Sporadic outbreaks of the virus are then recorded throughout 17th and 18th century Europe. The most deadly outbreak of the virus was in 1918, known commonly as the Spanish Flu Pandemic. Victims died within hours of contracting the virus, their skin turning blue and their lungs getting clogged up so they couldn’t breathe properly. Later research ascribed the virus’ deadliness to its ability to wear away at the victim’s lungs which then caused pneumonia. The death toll of the Spanish flu ranges from twenty to fifty million people. That’s more casualties than in World War One.

Companies and governments all around the world now work on influenza countermeasures. This includes everything from annual vaccines to pre-emptively working against flu strains that could reach pandemic level proportions. For instance in 2005, President of the United States George W. Bush requested 7.1. billion dollars from Congress for what he called the “National Strategy to Safeguard Against the Danger of Pandemic Influenza”. Fear of the Avian Bird Flu spreading has led to many countries (such as United States, Britain, France, Canada, and Australia) to stockpiling vaccines to fight against it in an emergency. While potentially dangerous strains of influenza can exist, it’s hopeful to know that people around the world are working towards fighting it. (Though it’d be interesting to know what else is being stocked in the Government cupboards for ‘just in case’ situations…)

Humans are not the only mammals to get infected by the flu. Cats, dogs, and even camels can catch it. But the most common mammals to get the flu are birds and pigs. Birds are considered the main reservoir and breeding ground for the influenza. Animal influenza can differ in symptoms from the human flu. For instance, in rare occasions, swine flu can cause a pig to have an abortion. So that’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re quarantining your best friend in the house: his cat Mr Whiskers should be sealed off as well.

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