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A Boogie-Woogie Flu

[whitespace] Spanish Flu Virus
Plague It Again, Sam: Wouldn't you know that, as the millennium approaches, some crackpot scientist wants to revive the Spanish flu virus so she can wipe it out again.

Photo by Jennifer Teeter



How a 'charismatic young Canadian geographer' digging up dead Norwegian miners near the Arctic Circle could become your worst nightmare

By Steve Church

PREPARE TO MEET your maker, pilgrims. The end is near. At least that's what a growing number of folks would have us think. You see, the term millennium refers not simply to a unit of time--1,000 years--but also to a biblical prophecy interpreted by some to mean Jesus will appear, followed by Armageddon.

Now, Armageddon is not a Hollywood blockbuster starring Harrison Ford, but an actual battle between good and evil that will result in Christ's 100-year reign. More and more folks are getting really antsy about this, resulting in various groups getting together for poison Kool-Aid parties or just "Welcome Back Jesus" bashes like the large group of end-timers that gathered at the Denver Sheraton last summer.

This group of 2,000 people prayed, chanted and blew on rams' horns for four days, convinced that Jesus would show and that would be the end of that. He didn't show, as you may know, and the end-timers went home, only to have their hotel rooms taken over by John Deere sales conventioneers.

The end-timers were not the first, however. As we look back over history, we find other groups getting jumpy at various times for no apparent reason. In 1260, a plague of "Lusts from the Bottomless Pit" was forecast ... it didn't happen. In 1843, the Second Coming was predicted, followed by "The Great Disappointment" when that didn't pan out.

Other doomsday prophecies incorporate notions of economic ruin--something like what happened recently when the Hong Kong stock market's plunges dragged the rest of the world's markets with it. Perhaps now is the time to get out of the stock market, or out of currency altogether, and go live in a cave.

Then there is the Bible's predictions of the Antichrist arising from Eastern Europe. Could that be the pesky head of the Russian mafia?

Perhaps our infatuation with the millennium is simply, as Harvard professor of geology Stephen Gould states, "our love of order in the irregularities of the universe. In the chaos of a confusing world, numerical regularity such as the year 2000 gives us a feeling of having some control."

I personally was not losing much sleep over the end of the earth happening on Jan. 1, 2000, since I have car payments to Bank of America that go far beyond that. An outfit like Bank of America simply would not make such a mistake. Then I read something that sent shivers up my timbers and froze my assets.

Bad Timing Award

KIRSTY DUNCAN IS ABOUT to end the world. Duncan, described as a "charismatic young Canadian geographer," recently led a group of scientists to a small island in the Svalbard archipelago, 720 miles below the Arctic Circle, to survey the grave sites of seven young Norwegian miners who, in 1918, died of the Spanish flu.

She's back now, but she plans to return to the tundra to unearth the corpses.

You'll remember that in one year the Spanish flu killed 40 million people. Forty million! There is no known cure.

Duncan and her team (pay attention here now) hope the remote, frozen location has preserved the virus, and that they can bring it back to life and then find a cure.

Now I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, but it seems to me--so close to the millennium, with the forecast of apocalypse and all--that this is no time to be unearthing the most devastating plague the earth has ever seen.

The Black Death killed 40 million Europeans, but it took 150 years to do it. The Spanish flu killed that many in 12 months. Worldwide, 675,000 Americans, 90,000 people in the Philippines and 20 million more in India died. The entire world was infected.

During the height of the Spanish flu's rampage through 1918 America, public gatherings were prohibited in Atlanta. The entire population of San Francisco was required to wear surgical masks, and people got on New York subways and died before they reached their stop. The death toll was so great in the U.S. alone that the flu reduced the average life expectancy by 13 years. It changed history.

The Spanish flu killed in a matter of days. Its preferred victims were not the young and old, the usual victims of infectious diseases, but those in their 20s. And it killed horribly, triggering a massive immune reaction that filled the lungs with blood, causing the victim to drown from within. Stricken people's appearance changed from white to black in two hours--the symptoms were more like Ebola than influenza.

At this point one has to wonder just what's up with those crazy Canucks. Are they really that bored up there? Have the Northern Lights fried their brains? All the signs say if there was ever a good time to unearth the world's worst plague, this ain't it. So why is Kirsty Duncan doing this?

The influenza virus mutates every few years. Duncan believes this Spanish flu virus could tell us why. The 30-year-old Ph.D., who teaches climatology at one of Canada's two universities, says, "My interest is in how climate change affects disease. I've done work on plague and malaria and the connection between global warming and Lyme disease."

Right away we realize this is not a woman you'd want to share a toothbrush with.

"I was interested in the seasonality of the flu," she adds, "then I read a book on the Spanish flu and was amazed and horrified." Apparently not horrified enough, since she came home and told her husband, "I will find a cure for this disease."

For the next four years, Duncan researched death records. She needed a site where victims died quickly and were chilled immediately, because the flu virus breaks down swiftly after death. Finally, she located just the right combinations in the graveyard of the company coal town in Longyearbyen, Norway.

It took another two years to get permission to dig up the frozen miners. Now the papers are in order, and Duncan will commence to dig ... in the year 1999.

What she may unearth there in the last year of the millennium may well be "Locusts From the Bottomless Pit."

Had your flu shot?

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From the December 31, 1997-January 7, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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