Spanish influenza redux: revisiting the mother of all pandemics
The Spanish influenza virus—or at least its viral offspring—have been circulating between the northern and southern hemispheres for 100 years now, but it is arguably only in the past few years that histories of the pandemic virus have achieved a similar ubiquity in our culture.
The Contagious Moment
As the credits roll at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes a plane carrying a pilot infected with a deadly brain virus traverses the screen. The pilot has already coughed blood in the departure terminal of San Francisco International airport so we know the prognosis for mankind is not good, and as the plane traces a path between New York, Frankfurt and destinations beyond it isn't long before the globe is ensnared in a web of inter-connecting lines.
Remembering Aids, Forgetting Flu
Books, music and artworks help us remember the victims of pandemics and imprint the events in our collective memories. But while there are plenty of memorials to AIDS, this was not the case for the 1918 Spanish flu - a pandemic which, seemingly, left far feinter emotional and cultural traces.
Ebola: epidemic Echoes and the Chronicle of A death fortold
Ebola, like other epidemics, seems to draw on a familiar store of images and metaphors—of parasites and hot zones, desperate patients, and intrepid disease detectives. But if Ebola echoes earlier epidemics, which ones? And what can the parallels with those earlier epidemics tell us about the closing scenes of the current outbreak of Ebola?
Vaccines: inoculating ignorance
Around the world, vaccines are in retreat, shunned by populations who, for the most part, have never been exposed to the diseases that blighted or shortened the lives of their grandparents’ generation. But with the possible exception of quinine – for centuries the only treatment for malaria – and antibiotics, vaccines have saved more lives than any other intervention in medical history.
Antibiotic antagonist: the curious career of René Dubos
The history of antibiotics is usually told as triumph followed by tragedy. First comes the bold promise of the sulpha drugs, then the dawning of the antibiotic era proper; then the sobering realisation that these wonder drugs could have an expiry date. Only rarely do historians mention another miracle drug, gramicidin, and the Rockefeller researcher who discovered it, René Dubos.
Legionnaires’ Disease: the ‘puzzle of the Century’
In 1976, a mysterious disease sickened and killed scores of veterans at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. Initially mistaken for swine flu - and later blamed on anti-war radicals - the outbreak was eventually traced to an organism that breeds in aquatic environments, including the water towers of hotels and other large buildings.
Disease X + Other Unknowns
In 2018, recognising that a “serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease”, WHO added a new category to its emergency priority list: Disease X. In the taxonomy of knowledge, Disease X corresponds to what the former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld infamously termed an “unknown unknown”. A classic example is HIV/AIDS. However, AIDS was not the first time a previously unknown pathogen had caught scientists unaware.