Facts and Trivia from the History of Influenza

Because this Asthma Mom finds herself drawn to any headline with the word flu in it lately and also because I had to sacrifice this site’s popular Weird Health feature to a massively time-consuming and so far neverending job search, here’s a little trivia on the very un-trivial influenza virus:

1. Historical writings about flu-like symptoms have been around for a long time, but pandemics don’t appear in our recorded history until 1580, a phenomenon attributed to Spanish troops’ traveling and therefore spreading contagion around Europe.

2. As more people – both soldiers and civilians – traveled more and lived in closer quarters over the decades and then centuries, the incidences of epidemics and pandemics grew.

During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, U.S. life expectancy dropped by 12 years.

4. The pandemics that have occurred since 1918, in 1957 and 1968, were descended from that horribly virulent strain.

5. In fact, because of that and because the nature of the influenza virus is to mutate rapidly, frequently, and in unexpected ways, some scientists believe that from 1918 until now, we’ve been experiencing something they call a pandemic era.

Scary thought, right?

6. On the other hand, flu knowledge, research, and (subsequently) prevention has come a long way in the last 91 years.

7. Actually, it’s come a long way since the first recorded outbreaks. Consider this: the word influenza is Italian for influence, as in the best explanation people had for flu outbreaks centuries ago, without the use of modern medical equipment, was that the stars influenced outbreak occurrences.

8. No one really knows why the seasonal flu is – well – seasonal, but researchers believe weather plays a large role.

Most information comes from these sources:

A History of the Flu

Time Magazine
A Brief History Of: Flu Pandemics

Discover Magazine
October 2009 print edition

Online Etymology Dictionary

62 responses to “Facts and Trivia from the History of Influenza”

  1. Her Grace says:

    What do you think about the vitamin D and flu connection? It’s so hard to find a reputable site, but it really does make sense. Tropical countries don’t experience a flu “season,” but rather low levels of flu year round.

    Then again, sunny FL has been hard hit by swine flu, so who knows? I’ve been giving my kids a D supplement with their multi-vitamin (essentially doubling their daily dosage to 800 — a boost, but not a significant quantity) just in case. We’re in the north and already spending way more time inside since school has started.

    Great post!

  2. Anne says:

    An internist told me a year or so ago, that a study showed that older people in FL don’t necessarily get enough D even from being in the sun year round–they could be well-tanned and still vitamin D deficient. Apparently it’s not just the exposure, but whether your body absorbs it. A blood test will show your level of Vitamin D, but you wouldn’t know it otherwise

  3. Amy says:

    Her Grace–
    Thanks! I actually think I have a couple of links on that–I’ll dig around for them and put ‘em up later. I’m guessing here, but I think vitamin D deficiencies may play a role and not be the whole story. I lived all around the state of FL for 20 years, up until I moved in Feb., and outbreaks seemed about the same for us as my friends in other parts of the country. I did have a friend in south FL, though, who moved from Ohio and said people in FL seemed to suffer from far fewer colds than when she lived up north.

    Even without the swine flu, I’d be wondering how this family will end up this winter since it’s our first full one in Colorado. It may be colder here, but the sun is much stronger than in FL b/c of the high altitude, if that makes sense.

    Thanks for sharing this–I had no idea different rates of absorption played a role. It makes sense, though.

  4. Her Grace says:

    I’ve also read that people with asthma who had low vitamin D levels tended to get more respiratory infections than those with normal levels. I think it’s another tool in the toolbox, at least.

    My doctor would probably test my levels, but I can’t see my pediatrician going for it. Not sure if it’s worth it, or if we should just get as much sun as we can and supplement at the same time.

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