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Global disaster could be just a sneeze away.


ACCORDING to the tales told by gnarled old wives, the best way to tell if you are suffering from either a cold or flu is the "spotting the pounds 5 on the lawn in the rain" test.

If you are suffering from a cold, then you stagger out to collect this piece of bounty. However, if laid low with flu, will-power evaporates at the thought of having to leave what could be your death-bed.

Although medical experts and old wives assure me that this summer is not in the grip of a wave of flu, I feel slightly poorly (enough to complain, but not enough to warrant time off) and have also spent my time interviewing people who happen to be coughing, sniffling and sneezing.

Worryingly, in the early stages of flu, the sufferer feels quite normal, yet this is the time when they are highly infectious. A single sneeze can send thousands of tiny fluinfested droplets into the air. These remain active for up to 48 hours on surfaces, and you become infected when just one droplet is transferred to your mouth or nose.

I wondered if my drooping interviewees could be suffering the early signs of "the English Sweats", first documented in 1845? These are described by Tom Quinn in his new book, Flu: A Social History, and are probably the first written references to flu.

Centuries before this documentation, King Richard III's army started seriously ailing at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The soldiers started sweating and coughing, and became wracked with pain and fever. Victims went blue or black as they succumbed to pneumonia and lungs collapsed. Quinn loves his colourful descriptions of "glutinous expectorations" and "blood-stained sputum". At least the soldiers either died within a couple of days or got better, which sorted matters out quickly.

How and why the army was struck down remains a mystery. At the time it was blamed on an act of God, but Quinn believes the answer is more prosaic, blaming the outbreak on chickens. The medieval practice of close habitation with these birds, through extensive poultry keeping, occurred with the first flu outbreaks. Fowl, particularly water birds, are natural hosts to numerous flu viruses. And almost everyone has heard of the new and deadly Chinese bird flu virus.

It's a dependable pub quiz fact to know that more people died in the 1918-19 flu pandemic than in the First World War. This was not by a close margin - flu despatched 100m, while 19m died in the trenches.

Furthermore, there is no reason for complacency. We live under the threat of another deadly kind of flu, hitherto undetected, which could erupt at any time with tragic consequences for millions of people.

The 1918-9 flu pandemic has been traced to southern China, where the virus was transmitted from pigs to humans. Then, at the 1918 US Swine Breeders Show, many of the pigs exhibited fell ill with symptoms not dissimilar to Richard III's soldiers. When the show was abandoned, the pigs were sent back to their home farms and thus spread the disease further. The virus got a hold in US military camps and was then exported on troopships to Europe and other continents (6% of Sierra Leone's population were killed). New York suffered 33,000 deaths and the UK 228,000.

The flu virus can also mutate, managing to keep ahead of the scientists and their vaccines. In fact, it can mutate at such a speed into forms from which humans have no immunity. We still have the conditions which create an ideal breeding ground for the deadly flu: mass tourism, high-density housing, intensive poultry farming, the ever-growing destruction of natural habitats and animal territories.

One Inuit victim of the 1918-19 pandemic was exhumed from her Alaskan permafrost grave, and the virus successfully extracted from her body tissue. Experimentation revealed that it closely resembled the Chinese bird flu virus. Another blessed relief is that it did not escape from the lab.

So, as Tony Hancock sang, "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases, catch them in your handkerchieves".

It's the very least we can do.

A single sneeze can send thousands of tiny flu-infested droplets into the air
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 25, 2008
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