Swine Flu & John M. Barry's "The Great Influenza"

While doing research on a pandemic angle of a novel I’m writing, I stumbled across two nonfiction books that offer some useful context for the recent outbreak of Swine Flu: John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history (2004) is an excellent and gripping read, recreating the events that led up to the Spanish Flu of 1918. This flu, considered one of the most deadly pandemics in modern history, is now widely believed to be a bird flu strain, but one that appears to have originated on a pig farm in Kansas. Barry offers clear and penetrating analysis of the scientific foundations of epidemiology, and this understanding actually works to allay fears about the present Swine Flu, although create concerns about the future. Our medical industry is vastly superior to that of 1918, when they didn’t understand viruses, didn’t know what they were confronting. Soon the media will be presenting the greater flu scare, and one that has already been labeled The Armageddon Virus by a British doctor, aptly named Dr. John Oxford (I’m not making this up): viruses of similar nature sometimes do combine and create mutations with both properties. In this case, it would be the human-to-human, airborne component of the Swine Flu, which seems to be passed easily, and the high death toll of the bird flu, which, up to this point, is difficult to contract, only through close contact with infected birds. (See BBC online here for his quotes: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8023977.stm.) A flu of that makeup would be deadly and easily caught. That will likely be the next worry. Viruses are complex and tricky, and this could be a highly unlikely combination, or a real possibility. 
An even better, grislier, and more shocking disease book is John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005), about the bubonic plague of the 14th century in Europe. It’s a horror story in some respects, but here the science is also a bit comforting: The bubonic plague still exists but is considered a relatively easy disease to treat and to handle. Not in the 14th century: Kelly does an especially good job of conjuring up the gruesome reality of Italian towns devastated by the Black Death and the social turmoil it caused, including anti-Semitism and the rise of Flagellants, an extreme Christian sect who traveled from town-to-town whipping themselves bloody.

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