Archive for the ‘epidemics’ Category

The 1918 flu virus and its descendants: Part 2 Rediscovering the culprit

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

many other major pandemics were associated with rodents, but not the 1918 flu

I re-read my last post a day after writing it and amended the first line, since I found it misleading. It was the worst flu pandemic ever, but I knew that smallpox, the Black Plague, AIDS, malaria and perhaps even typhus each have caused nearly as many or even more deaths over a period of years. I eventually found a rather strange, non-medical website with the "7 Worst Killer Plagues in history," and confirmed my belief that no other bacteria or virus had wreaked as much havoc in brief span of time as the 1918-1919 H1N1 influenza virus.

I wanted to find out what happened to that highly pathogenic organism and, after searching the web, realized the PBS article on the "Spanish flu" was a good place to start. It mentions that the influenza virus was not identified until 1933 and that the actual genetic identity of the particular strain involved in that pandemic (as opposed to the basic type...H1N1) was not identified for many years. The influenza virus responsible for the 1918-1919 pandemic has had many descendants, none as deadly as their ancestor.

In 1950, Johan V Hultin, a graduate student starting his doctoral studies in microbiology, got a clue from a visiting professor who suggested hunting for the virus in bodies buried 32 years prior in the permafrost of the Arctic. Hultin and his faculty advisor traveled to Alaska where flu among the Inuits had been especially deadly with 50 to 100% death rates in five villages.

early days in the Far North

Gold miners, under contract with the Territorial government, had served as grave diggers in 1918-1919 and tissue samples were recovered from four bodies exhumed in 1951. Pathology slides fit with viral lung damage and, in some cases, secondary bacterial pneumonia. But tissue cultures from the samples did not cause disease in ferrets and no influenza virus was recovered.

It wasn't until 1995 that science had advanced enough to for researchers to start the work necessary to identify the virus's unique features. Jeffrey Taubenberger, a molecular pathologist then working at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), began a ten-plus-year-long project starting with autopsy tissues from the time of the pandemic that had been preserved in the National Tissue Repository. His project was stimulated by a paper published in the journal Science in February, 1995, in which preserved tissue samples from the famous British scientist John Dalton (often called the father of modern atomic theory) were examined. Dalton was color-blind and had donated his eyes at his death in 1844 to determine the cause of the defect; his DNA was studied 150 years later and the resultant publication gave Taubenberger the impetus to do the same with the flu virus.

Hultin read the first paper from Taubenberger's group, wrote to him and eventually went back to Alaska to exhume more flu victims. One was an obese woman whose lungs had the findings of acute viral infection. Samples of these permafrost-preserved tissue had RNA incredibly similar to those obtained from the AFIP National Tissue repository.

And so began an amazing chapter in the history of virology.

Dangerous research on influenza H5N1, the "bird flu"

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

This "chicken" is safe to handle

I just looked at the World Health Organization's (WHO) most recent statistics on human cases of avian influenza H5N1, the dreaded bird flu. These cover the period from 2003 through March 10, 2012 and report 596 total cases and 350 deaths. The counties with the great numbers of cases are Indonesia, Egypt and Vietnam and I didn't see any reports of bird flu infections in the Western Hemisphere...yet.

That's a relatively tiny number of cases, but an incredibly high percentage of deaths, nearly 60% of those infected. But influenza epidemics and pandemics have been a common occurrence in the last century. So what's the difference between our seasonal flu, the pandemics and this new flu?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of WHO has published the first three chapters (of nine) of an online primer on avian influenza. It seemed a good place for me to start.

The first issue is how easily a new flu virus passes from animals  to humans (the usual hosts are birds, typically ducks and, secondarily, chickens, especially if flocks are raised in proximity to each other and the ducks are "free range") and then from one person to another. The second is how deadly the particular influenza virus is.

Up until now those infected with the relatively new H5N1 subtype, sometimes called H5N1 HPAI, have had direct or at least indirect contact with infected birds. The HPAI is the acronym for "Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza," but in this case highly pathogenic, which translates into very likely to cause disease, mostly refers to birds. Unlike seasonal flu, there's been (thus far) absolutely no documented human-to-human spread of the virus.

The 1918 Spanish flu infected 1/3 of everyone alive and killed at least 20 million. My math says that's roughly 4%, but 3% is the usual quoted figure. Seasonal flu kills less than 0.1% of those infected. So this flu, if it does reach a human, is terrible.

These experiment may prove deadly

Recently there has been an enormous flap about the work done in two laboratories. I had heard about the issue, but hadn't read the details until my monthly copy of On Wisconsin arrived and I realized one of the labs was in Madison. CNN has an online review of the problem. The researchers wondered why this deadly flu variety hasn't spread from person to person, so they created a mutated form that could be easily transmitted from one mammal to another using ferrets as their test animal.

Then the excrement collided with the rotating blades. Detailed papers were about to be published in prominent, widely read journals, Nature and Science. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity temporarily stopped the process, saying the papers should be published without methods or details to stop terrorists from making their own highly lethal and easily spread virus strains.

Think about it; if this virus subtype gets released it could potentially infect a third or perhaps all of all of us now alive and kill 60% of those whom it strikes. We have a world population of roughly 7 billion now, so that's somewhere between 1.4 and 4.2 billion deaths.

Yet many in the scientist community seems to think all the details of the research should be given to those responsible groups that need help with H5N1 HPAI.

I'm worried.

Viral Diseases: Influenza, Part 2

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Homo Habilis, the first member of the genus Homo

I realized, as I wrote my last post, that I was using medical jargon that might make no sense to most readers. So I want to examine how the influenza virus is described by doctors, specialists in epidemics (AKA epidemiologists) and other scientifically-trained groups.

First of all let's briefly talk about how we classify everything that is alive. There's a complex system called taxonomy which is conventionally used to group separate different  groups of dissimilar and similar organisms. It has seven major layers, or taxa. Humans, for example,  belong to the kingdom Animalia, the phylum Chordata, the class Mammalia, the order Primata, the family Hominidae, the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens. 

Flu viruses fall into three genuses, and those logically enough are called A, B and C.  The A type has only one species, lives in nature in wild aquatic birds (but can infect other animals), and causes the most severe diseases in humans. Subtypes of flu A can be identified by a variety of laboratory tests that determine which kind of two glycoproteins (complex chemicals that contain both carbohydrate and protein constituents) are found on the surface of the virus.

One of those is called hemagglutinin (H for short) and the other neauraminidase (N). There are 16 H types and 9 Ns; Hs bind the virus to a cell and help it insert its genetic information into that cell. Ns get involved later in the infection and help the virus release its "offspring" from the cells they were produced in.

Laboratory tests can show which H and N are present.  Both are antigens, substances that can cause an immune reaction if taken into your body by one route or another (e.g., breathing them in) and cause your body to produce antibodies, chemicals that are produced to combine with and counter the effects of the antigen. Some important influenza viruses are H1N1 which caused the 1918 Spanish Flu and the 2009 Swine flu, H2N2 (Asian flu of 1957), H3N2 (Hong Kong Flu 1968) and H5N1 (Bird Flu in 2004).

The CDC's short article on types of influenza viruses mentions there are seasonal epidemics nearly every winter in the United States; those are caused by type A or B, not by type C. All of the terrible flu pandemics have been caused by type A flu viruses. The B virus types are normally found only in humans (seals and ferrets are the only other animals that can be infected by flu B).

We get ours every year

Why is type A the killer? It mutates much more rapidly than B, usually by minor changes in the H and N  surface proteins, occasionally by sudden major changes. The first kind of change may alter the antigens you can be exposed to so the antibodies you've developed to fight off a flu infection don't work. That's also why the vaccine you get, which contains two A subtypes and one B strain, may not fully protect you. That's not a reason to skip your flu shot.

The other kind of mutation is more serious and I'll write about it next.