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Oh, hey, this one. Even though we all have “cold and flu” remedies in the medicine cabinet, the deadly eruption of Swine Flu reminds us that “the flu” is not just something to fake to get out of work.
The most famous flu pandemic was the Spanish Flu, which was first observed in 1918, in Kansas of all places — by the end of 1919, nearly 20 percent of the global population had been infected. The estimated deaths still range from 60 to 100 million, over a period of just 18 months. Famous people like Guillaume Apollinaire, Egon Schiele and Max Weber died from the flu, so being a tortured, artistic intellectual WILL NOT HELP YOU.
The Spanish Flu was a type A influenza strain, of the H1N1 family, and is a close ancestor of your current most-popular flu, the Swine Flu. Though we now have the necessary anti-virals to treat these nasty contagion, the key with a new strain in humans is not to over-treat every possible instance of the disease, as that will only make it stronger. It is perhaps this little detail, the idea of the virus actually growing stronger when we attack it too much, that adds a real element of horror.
Notable in pop culture: Most people probably recall the seminal 1992 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air known as “The Cold War” in which Will catches the flu from a girl Carlton has also been seeing… How did you catch the flu, Will? WELL? It’s a really good episode.
This scary disease from Africa hasn’t yet ever blossomed into full-scale pandemic, largely because it’s so lethal it doesn’t leave the host enough time to pass it along. The virus is named for the Ebola River (which is a shame, because the Ebola River Valley looks like a nice place to go adventure rafting) where it was thought to originate and; in terms of symptoms, it pretty much destroys the whole system, with blood everywhere, respiratory failure, acute gastroenteritis… it’s awful. A strain of the virus showed up in Virginia but luckily was not human-friendly. Sadly, the virus was also unable to kill the feature film Outbreak.
Notable in pop culture: Yup, as already mentioned, Dustin Hoffman puts on a space suit to battle the “Motaba” virus, from the “Motaba River Valley” in Zaire. Hey, I loved Tootsie, but the man is not and never was an action star.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a pandemic for the 21st century, with its sleek acronymic branding and absolute refusal to honor the traditional “kill mostly poor people in the Third World” code of outbreak conduct (Toronto? Really? You’re going to wipe out Canadians? Who would notice?).
Notable in pop culture: There was a SARS Benefit Concert in Toronto in the summer of 2003, featuring such old rock and rollers as the Guess Who, Rush and the Rolling Stones. Justin Timberlake was booed. It remains the single greatest day in the history of Canadian entertainment. (Alternate names for the show were: SARSStock," "SARS-a-palooza and "SARSfest." No joke.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Smallpox, the one with the little red dots which killed a bunch of English people in wigs, has pretty much been eradicated, so that’s good. Typhoid sounds too much like typhus, so it got shunted to this category (Typhoid Mary ring a bell?). And polio was awful for those afflicted, but had a lower mortality rate than most above (it too has been virtually eradicated). There’s also tuberculosis, which probably had the best nicknames of any of the great pandemics (suck it, Black Death): Consumption, the King’s Evil, the White Plague and, simply, Wasting Disease. (NB: Scarlet Fever is not TB; this mistake will also make you look stupid.