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Flu jumped from horses to birds just a hundred years ago … and gave rise to the 1918 epidemic.

20 February 2014

At http://phys.org/print311767523.html … a couple of years ago Bird Flu was the big doomsaying myth – and don't we like being frightened out of our wits. We were all going to contract heaving chests and mucous filled nasal passages, a terrible headache and a weakness in our limbs – and we were all going to die. Again. The epidemic was blamed on birds and it was seriously considered by the politicos to inaugurate an actual cull of wild birds. Especially those migrating birds that arrive in their hundreds, and even more especially those big white birds, the whooper swans that come in their hundreds each year from northern Eurasia (as the winter sets in). It didn't happen and I suppose it was because of the sheer logistics of killing so many birds – or the fact that not many people actually die of the flu. Even in an epidemic.

This was of course put down as one of those endless and unwarranted medical scare stories that are produced by PR people to sell drugs and fill the pages of medical journals (mainly with dross). The media of course swallow the doomsaying hook line and sinker – every time. They just love a bit of blood curdling. We just love it too – why are horror films so popular?

Well, it seems, wild bird populations may not be the villains after all – and why aren't we surprised? Instead, it was domesticated birds such as chickens and geese and guinea fowl etc. They passed the flu on to wild birds – which is why it was found in their carcasses after they dropped out of the sky (apparently too tired to fly all that way from Russia). However, new research comes up with something even more extraordinary. Chickens and domestic geese, and presumably turkeys too as this is American research, contracted the flu virus from horses. It doesn't say where the horses got it from but in the 19th century the European and American transport systems were heavily indebted to horses. There were lots of them – untold numbers of the four legged tail flicking foot stomping and head nodding animals. While the research paper does not go so far as to say where the horses contracted the flu virus one can't help thinking a certain species was fond of riding them, and using them to pull carts and carraiges and howitzers and all kinds of things. Also, not a lot of people might know this but in the 1870s there was a horse flu outbreak that swept across North America. Horses got very sick and lethargic and were unable to do the heavy work that humans put them to – and it got so bad the US Cavalry, the men in blue, had to resort to pursuing the Apache on foot as their horses were not up to the job of riding into the sunset. John Wayne never told me that.

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