4.13.2010,11:52 AM
What's Old is New

Cemeteries contain pages of our history buried in the ground. Headstones are the book covers. We can't really judge the books by their covers, but we can piece together series of stories to form a large novel. They can also predict our future in more ways than one.

The information gathered from engravings can help us put together enough pieces of a narrative about the community and even the region. If one were to collect data on dates of death from a large sampling of cemeteries, a scatter plot would reveal wars, famines, epidemics, even pandemics. And it is the latter which recently revealed a surprise to the scientific community.

During my visits to many cemeteries throughout the central and northern area of Texas, I noted a large number of death dates clustering around certain years. One of those clusters centers around 1916-1919. Most of the deceased were children and the elderly, but not restricted to these age ranges.

Scientists revealed last month that the influenza virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic which killed more than 50 million people around the globe has revisited us. The influenza virus is nearly identical to the H1N1 virus that caused the first global human pandemic in four decades. A repeat of history.

Over the 92 years between pandemics this influenza virus literally changed coats to disguise itself from our immune system. The protein coat that surrounds the virus is what our antibodies recognize and bind to; it is the mechanism of our immune system that helps protect us from infection and slow it down once we are infected. Certain places on the virus protein coat evolved in such a way over nearly a century to change its shape, called 'conformation', and prevented antibodies that retained a hint of recognition to the coat of its predecessor from binding to it. In essence, the evolving virus donned many disguises that fooled our immune system. Thus successive generations became ripe hosts to a virus wearing a new disguise.

More recently, the protein coat of the H1N1 virus strain almost completely reverted back to the same coat of its predecessor of 1918. Only a very small part of the protein coat of the H1N1 is different. And only those people that have antibodies recognizing the 1918 strain are armed with full ammunition to fight another infection. That means the eldest of our population had a higher degree of immunity or resistance. The rest of us were naive ground to infect, new pages to write off and bury.

So, next time you are visiting a cemetery and you see headstones with death dates of 1917-1919, you will see how things can turn back the clocks.


posted by Macrobe
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