Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History - John M Barry

Title: The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
Author: John M Barry
ISBN: 978-0-143036-49-4
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2004
Pages: 546

The Great Influenza of the immediate post WW1 years claimed the lives of between 20-40 million people worldwide before it had run its course. The author has drafted a comprehensive study encompassing not only the spread and morbidity of the Great Influenza of 1918-1920 but also the means by which scientists and medical staff endeavoured to combat it. Most interestingly, he also looks at the role government played in failing to both recognize, despite copious amounts of evidence, and assist in combatting the disease through education and leadership. Barry has focussed upon the impact that the disease had on the United States while referring obliquely to its impact internationally.

His discussion and analysis of the disease itself is concise and clear; he provides the reader with a detailed understanding of what constitutes the influenza as well as its characteristics. This is key to understanding nature of illness and how it mutates and spreads. He also discusses the means and individuals who were on the front line trying to understand and isolate the virus. The aggressive nature of the influenza virus was unlike anything that had been experienced before and the scientific and medical knowledge needed to effectively counter it was in its infancy.

What is noteworthy in the book is the author’s analysis of the US Federal Government’s response, or lack thereof, to the crisis. President Wilson’s administration was focussed on the war and the US’s role in it. As such, he would not allow for any discussion, publication or central coordination of a response to the pandemic as being a negative influence on the war effort. Thus it was that while people were literally dying in the streets, the Government offices of Public Health were issuing statements indicating that there was no cause for alarm. Barry discusses in detail the impact of denial on the population and the panic that it caused.

This is an excellent account of this event and a timely reminder of the precarious relationship that we maintain with nature. It is also a notice to the importance of effective planning and preparation for future events. Hubris will lead to our downfall and the Great Influenza serves as a reminder of what can occur if we allow our guard to slip.

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