WSJ Historically Speaking: The World-Changing Power of the Flu



Getting a flu vaccine is a dreary annual chore, made worse by the fact that the serum often doesn’t work against the current strain of the virus. But good news seems to be on the horizon. Scientists now report that they have successfully adjusted a viral protein to teach immune systems to fight groups of viruses—an important step toward creating a universal vaccine.

The breakthrough is long overdue. The flu is an ancient disease—at least 2,000 years old—and one of the deadliest, with 10 pandemics in just the past three centuries.

Such is the flu’s power that it should be added to the list of history-altering diseases like typhoid, malaria and smallpox. The first wiped out almost a third of the Athenian population in 430 B.C., a year into the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. Sixteen hundred years later, in 1167, a malaria-like epidemic forced the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I to abandon Rome and retreat with his army to Germany.

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