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Research Sheds New Light on 1918 Epidemic

Birds not to blame for devastating worldwide influenza deaths

FRIDAY, Aug. 9, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Don't blame the 1918 influenza epidemic on the birds.

Researchers who examined historic bird collections at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History say the disease that killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide didn't originate from birds, as was previously thought. Their findings appear in the August issue of the Journal of Virology.

The 1918 pandemic was caused by a type A influenza strain with a hemagglutinin (HA) gene subtype to which few people had immunity.

The scientists from Ohio State University, the Museum of Natural History and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology examined genetic material from the Smithsonian's collection of liquid-preserved birds.

They focused on wild waterfowl collected between 1915 and 1919. The researchers found and sequenced a portion of the HA gene from a bird added to the collection in 1917. The scientists then compared that to the HA gene in the 1918 influenza virus, and found they were different.

The 1918 influenza virus swept across the world in six months. In some U.S. cities, more than 10,000 people died from the disease each week. Young, healthy adults had unusually high death rates.

More Information

Much has been written about the so-called Spanish Flu, including this extensive Overview of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

SOURCE: Smithsonian Institution, news release, August 2002
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