Professor John Oxford on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic

Contributed by Ida Milne

More than 90 years after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed in excess of 40m people worldwide,  researchers at either side of the Atlantic continue to disagree about whether it actually began in Europe or on US soil. British virologist Professor John Oxford, one of the world’s leading influenza researchers, gave his views on this and the continuing threats posed by other influenzas at a public lecture in the Science Gallery [on Friday 7 May]. Ida Milne reports from the lecture:

Was Patient Zero in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic really mess cook Private Albert Gitchell, from Fort Riley, Kansas, who fell ill  on 11 March 1918?

This  claim by US investigators has gained mileage in the popular press. The idea of being able to identify Patient Zero in a pandemic which killed more that 50 million people is media-friendly, if romantic.

Professor John Oxford, who specializes in the pathogenicity of the influenza virus, in particular the 1918 strain, believes it more likely that the pandemic began in army clearing houses in northern France in 1917.

He is excited about new historical research which suggests a link between Jeffrey Taubenberger’s claim for an American origin, and his own belief that the evidence points toward an earlier outbreak at the army base at Étaples. Étaples was the principal transit camp for the British Expeditionary force in northern France; it provided the ideal cauldron for a new influenza virus, with masses of people, pigs and fowl kept in close quarters.

His work combining science and history feeds into public fascination with the ‘Spanish’ flu; he is frequently to be seen on the History Channel digging up yet another flu victim in a lead-lined coffin. Television producers love him, as he can explain complex ideas in sound bites, and does not try to play down the threats posed by emerging viruses.

“The avian flu H5N1 is the big one, the one sitting in the corner that we are all watching,” he told the audience at the Paccar theatre, explaining that H5N1, which has so far killed 50 per cent of its human victims, would pose a serious danger to humankind if it mutates into a  more  transmissible form.

He is unimpressed by conspiracy theorists who argue that the World Health Organisation changed their own guidelines to allow them to declare the 2009 Influenza A H1N1 outbreak in Mexico last year a pandemic, or that it was all hyped up to make massive profits for the drug companies. Such theories are, he says, an insult to the medical staff who put their lives on the line to care for flu patients.

The 2009 pandemic is already at least as large as the 1968 Hong Kong pandemic, and he thinks it will last another couple of years, citing what early researchers wrote about the 1918 flu to show that great viruses have to start small. “If you told researchers in 1918 that this flu was going to kill millions of people, they’d say go away, you crazy scientist.”

“It is no time to be complacent now, it is no time for politicians to say we wasted our money on vaccines.  This virus is going to be around for years to come.”

“It will be interesting to see what happens in the southern hemisphere in the coming season, but my bet is that when there will be a shift in the next year or so and it will killing people in the over 60 age group.”

Professor John Oxford, founder of Retroscreen Virology, is Professor of Virology at St Bartholomew’s and the Royal London Hospital , and a media specialist on the history of influenza.

Ida Milne is a PhD student at Trinity College, Dublin, researching the political, social and economic effects of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in Ireland. She has contributed work on the influenza pandemic in Ireland to History Ireland and newspapers, television and radio programmes.

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3 Responses to “Professor John Oxford on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic”

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