There was something chilling about reading Mark Honigsbaum’s account of the 1918 flu pandemic at a time when the world is threatened with another pandemic, of a similar type of influenza (at the time of writing, the 2009 swine flu outbreak has recently been declared a pandemic). There are distinct parallels – in 1918 there was a mild early outbreak before a crushing attack in the winter that killed millions worldwide.
What’s fascinating in Honigsbaum’s account is the way he intertwines the story of the flu pandemic with the story of the First World War, an era in history that for my generation was largely forgotten (we studied the Second World War in school, but not the first). It’s essential to make this link as it has, at least in part, to explain why the flu pandemic was given such scant regard at the time – there is very little written up about it – and it also adds pathos as we see these two terrible killers side by side. It also seems to be the case that, despite being called Spanish Flu back then, that the outbreak may well have come to Europe from the USA along with troops fighting in the war.
There is now a certain amount of irony about the last part of the book, which looks at how things might develop with a future pandemic, basing it on the bird flu scare that was prevalent when the book was written. Oddly, one thing Honigsbaum didn’t foresee was that we would have a mild outbreak first, paralleling the 1918 situation, and so giving the authorities more breathing space than he thought we would get.
Even so, the book, with its vivid descriptions of the impact of flu and the associated bacterial infections that tend to piggy-back on it makes grim and worrying reading. If the book has a fault, it’s a touch dry and does perhaps labour some of the details, but it is, nonetheless, a timely warning of what could be around the corner. It’s difficult to encourage people to buy books that are going to depress them – but this should be the exception to the rule.