1918 flu pandemic linked to human, bird virus gene swap

The 1918 death rate of various age groups from the pandemic flu virus is shown in solid gray. The dashed red line shows mismatched hemagglutinin flu antigens (HA) during childhood.

M. Worobey et al/PNAS 2014

The 1918 pandemic flu, which killed up to 50 million people, may have originated after a human virus took genetic material from a bird virus. Young adults born between 1880 and 1900 were probably more susceptible to the 1918 flu virus because they had been exposed to a distinct H3N8 virus as children and didn’t have the same flu immunities as their elders, researchers report April 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The distinct flu strains people are exposed to as children may influence which age groups experience more deaths during seasonal flu epidemics and from the H5N1 and H7N9 viruses, the scientists conclude.

photo of Ashley Yeager

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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