The Great Influenza by John M Barry (published 2004). Reviewed by Deborah Hilton and Natasha Hilton (above, right)
In The Great Influenza, John M Barry describes the so-called Spanish ‘flu of 1918-19 as the ‘deadliest plague in history’. A historical account of various scientists and academics is given, mentioning methods and theoretical underpinnings, describing influenza strains, epidemiological evidence, virus origins, the immune system, and how it identifies and attacks viruses. Disease outbreaks or illness complications encountered during the First World War included measles, influenza, and pneumonia. Barry describes events before, during, and after the pandemic, such as waves of infections. Misinformation and a lack of information made people afraid and uncertain. An estimated 50 to 100 million people died from the disease in 1918-19, but in essence many who passed were missed.
In Australia 102 years after that pandemic began, co-reviewer Natasha began her nursing undergraduate course in 2020. In 2021 Natasha commenced work at a major hospital in Melbourne as a Registered Undergraduate Student of Nursing [RUSON]. She worked on a COVID ward and ensured that people correctly donned and doffed PPE. She also used COVID screening tools as people entered and exited the hospital. These unique learning situations resulted in Natasha gaining first-hand experience of how governments plan to mitigate disaster.
How hospitals and governments use tools that were not available in the 1918-1919 pandemic – rapid diagnostic methods, antiviral agents, or vaccines. Fellow nursing students may have heard the term ‘Spanish Flu’, but had not been through a pandemic themselves. Unlike the times described in Barry’s book, we’ve benefitted from rapid advances in technology, medical and scientific research, meaning COVID-19 case numbers and deaths could be more accurately documented.
Barry’s book and other works about the 1918-1919 pandemic highlight that technological advances mean we’re in a better place now than then. That helped us maintain our optimism by putting the situation into perspective.