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Expedition to Longyearbyen, Norway

Seven graves on a Norwegian island may hold answers to a deadly mystery: what kind of influenza caused the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918?

Influenza pandemics (worldwide epidemics) occur every 30 to 40 years on average, when a strain of the virus emerges against which the human population has no immunity. Usually the "flu" mainly threatens the lives of the elderly and the infirm. In the fall of 1918, an outbreak of influenza swept the globe, killing between 20 and 40 million people -- especially young and healthy individuals -- and then it vanished. It was possibly the most devastating pandemic in human history, and no one knows what made this strain of flu so deadly -- or whether or not it can strike again.

After years of research Kirsty Duncan, a geographer from the University of Windsor in Canada, has located the graves of seven Norwegians who died in early October, 1918, when the epidemic reached the remote town of Longyearbyen on the Svalbard archipelago. The seven seem to be buried deep in the Arctic permafrost -- and if so, the virus that killed them may be cryogenically preserved in their bodies. Next year, Duncan plans to lead an expedition to exhume the bodies and take tissue samples from lungs, brain, throat and liver, looking for the virus or its genetic footprint.

The team will take every precaution against infection by the airborne virus: they will wear biohazard suits and enclose each excavation site. The samples themselves will be flown to a facility rated BSL-4 -- the highest level of biological containment.

If the virus or its RNA residue can be isolated, its genetic code will be sequenced and compared with other flu samples on file in the world's virological centers. If the world's health organizations can identify the precise characteristics of the 1918 flu, they can minimize the chances of such a pandemic from occurring again.

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An Access Excellence Science Mystery sponsored by Genentech, Inc.
Copyright © 1997 Genentech, Inc.; all rights reserved.


 
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