Between the years of 1914 and 1918, 32 countries around the globe were engulfed in one of the deadliest wars in human history--an event that would come to be known first as the Great War, and then as World War I. Sadly, however, in the year that this conflict drew to a close, another global catastrophe began: one whose death toll would eventually eclipse the casualty count of WWI. That event was known as the Spanish Flu, and it claimed as many as 100 million lives while infecting roughly a third of the world’s entire population.
Just as World War I would later be decried as an example of the dangers of nationalism, so did the Spanish Flu come to be heralded as an important warning about the future of medicine. In order to continue thriving in a densely populated and highly interconnected world, we must constantly take steps to protect against the threat of a global pandemic. For this reason, scientists continue studying the lessons that the world’s largest pandemic holds, even now nearly an entire century after its occurrence.
One aspect of the Spanish Flu that is of special interest is the fact that its most common victims were not the sick, the elderly, or newborns. Rather, this pandemic seemed to target healthy young adults in particular.
Recent research performed at the University of Arizona may hold the answer as to why. According to evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, this phenomenon is due to the fact that the flu actually comes in many distinct strains. These strains fluctuate in prominence over the years--meaning that, at different points in history, we are all going to be exposed to different types of flu viruses. People tend to have a special resistance to the strains that were prominent during their younger years. This means that, occasionally, the elderly will have more resistance to certain strains of the flu then the otherwise young and healthy.
In the future, as our knowledge of flu strain immunity and resistance grows, scientists and public officials will be able to work together to use resources such as vaccinations and treatments more efficiently, targeting the groups who are genuinely most vulnerable to infection.
This possibility is just another one of the many exciting prospects that the future of microbial study holds.