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Immune System Still Fighting The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Posted by Jane Akre
Monday, August 18, 2008 11:53 AM EST
Category: Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Flu, Influenza, 1918 Flu Pandemic, FDA and Prescription Drugs, Pandemics

People who lived thru the 1918 flu pandemic still have immunities to that strain.



IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons/ flu pandemic 1918, Seattle police/ author: U.S. government archives


Is it possible that a 90 year old has greater immunity to the flu than a younger person?

90 years ago in 1918, an outbreak of flu swept through the world killing at least 50 million people.  

Surprisingly, research out of Vanderbilt University, shows people who lived through the pandemic as children are still producing antibodies to the virus today, even though they are 91 to 101-years-old.   

Researchers have determined that the immune system has a long-term memory, particularly to the first flu strain you are exposed to in your lifetime.   

Among the 32 elderly people studied, all were born before or during 1915, making them old enough to have developed some antibodies during the pandemic.

The 32 people studied still had antibodies to the 1918 flu virus and some were still producing antibodies.

The same response was seen in previous research when mice were injected with the virus, resurrected from buried victims of the outbreak. Mice given antibodies from the elderly survived, while those given placebos did not.

Their report is published in the August 17th issue of Nature.

The body fights invading bacterial and viral cells by using T-cells and B-cells, made in bone marrow. These make antibodies to flag then attack the invaders.

"The antibodies that we isolated are remarkable antibodies. They grab onto the virus very tightly and they virtually never fall off,” Dr. James Crowe Jr., a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology at Vanderbilt said to Reuters.

Dr. Crowe admits there may be something about the 1918 flu pandemic that makes it easier for the body to remember.

More work will need to be done to study whether people have a strong response to the first flu they are exposed to.   

"The elderly might be a very good donor source for finding antibodies against viruses," he said to the Washington Post. Understand influenza and the body’s response to fighting it, may aid in the development of vaccines.

It’s possible that those still having a strong immune response to the 1918 flu, may have initially be exposed to a less deadly strain of it that prepared their lifetime immune response.   

The 1918 flu pandemic was the worst in modern memory sweeping around the world after World War I and killing between 50 to 100 million people.  It reportedly was an H1N1 strain that came from birds.

Today the H5N1 avian strain is circulating in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

So far 243 people have been infected and died.  The concern is that this strain will, like in 1918, mutate to more easily infect humans.

Dr. Crowe believes antibodies from survivors of today’s avian strain might provide a key to a good interim treatment while a vaccine is being formulated.  #

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