A few days of fever, chills and generally feeling awful: that's a typical case
of the flu. But many times a century, flu viruses change so radically that they
can trigger a pandemic - as health experts fear could happen with the swine flu.
The history of influenza may go all the way back to the beginning of medicine; a
similar illness was first described by Hippocrates in Greece in 412 B.C. In
1485, a flu-like 'sweating sickness' swept across Britain, leaving many dead -
and treatments of the time, including bleeding, did not help.
The latest pandemics, in 1957 and 1968, were mild, with global death tolls of
about 2 million and 1 million respectively. But doctors live in fear of a killer
like the 1918 Spanish flu, which caused up to 100 million deaths. Undertakers
were so overwhelmed that corpses were left inside homes for days. Cities passed
laws requiring citizens to wear masks in public places, but the virus defeated
that barrier; little slowed the spread of the disease.
From 1917-1918, average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped an amazing 12
years. Cruelly, the 1918 virus was especially lethal in young and healthy
people. The disease seemed to trigger a massive overreaction of victims' immune
systems; when autopsies were performed on flu victims, lungs were found to be
blue and filled with water. They had died by drowning. The Spanish flu pandemic
ended only when the virus had infected so many people that it burned itself out.
The most recent pandemic in 1968 is called the Hong Kong flu after its
origin. The virus is comparatively mild. In 2003, Southeast Asia suffered from
the H5N1 avian flu. The governments responded by stockpiling the antiviral
Today, doctors have better tools - antivirals and respirators - that would
cut the potential death toll. But influenza is unpredictable. Decreasing
transmission is the best strategy to prevent the A (H1N1) flu outbreak. The more
everyone follows the practices below, the safer YOU are from it.
First, keep your hands clean. Wash your hands after contact with common
surfaces and utensils. Make sure you wash your hands properly. Next, practise
cough and sneeze etiquette. You have to sneeze or cough into a tissue. Wash your
hands after throwing it away. If you have a cold or sniffles, and need to be in
crowded, public areas, wear a mask.
Of course, if you are ill with flu-like symptoms, stay at home. Seek medical
treatment if symptoms get worse. Minimise contact with friends and relatives.