There are several good reasons to read this well-written book:
Science, given so much credit in other areas, still has not beaten the influenza virus—right now it is flu virus 1, science 0.
Government efforts to treat, much less cure, influenza have cost billions of dollars—with little to show for the investment.
We have uncovered the mystery behind a disease that has literally taken millions of lives—but there is no success yet in sight.
Finally, on a personal level, should you have a flu shot every year or not?
Taking the last point first, Dr. Brown, having devoted his lifetime to treating flu victims, suggests the jury is still out. To be cautious, he suggests that youngsters and older people probably should be vaccinated each year. Others should pass, he says.
Flu shots have been, and sometimes still are, ineffective in preventing or treating those susceptible to the virus. So, if you do have the flu shot each year, you still may come down with the symptoms. Most years’ flu victims will probably improve with no lasting symptoms. But occasionally, the virus is particularly virulent and dangerous, which is what happened in 1918–19, when millions perished.
The underlying problem is that the virus mutates at a faster pace than scientists can come up with a vaccine specific to those mutations.
While some flu versions are deadly, others cause little more than the symptoms of the common cold. We still do not know, in advance, whether the latest iteration of the vaccine will work against the current virus. The lead time to develop a vaccine—six months or more—is greater than how fast the virus changes. Many years, we seem to fall behind, and the vaccine may only be 10 percent effective that season.
It is disheartening that despite billions of dollars spent on trying to prevent the spread of the disease, we are not winning the war. Yes, science has provided a much greater understanding of the virus, and how it affects individuals. Yes, we now know why the 1918–19 epidemic was so deadly. Yes, treatment of the results of a case of flu, i.e. pneumonia, are vastly improved as modern antibiotics result in far fewer deaths.
But, no, victory is not in sight. We can put a man on the moon; we cannot prevent or cure influenza. But that does not cause us to stop working on the project.
Alfred M. King is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.