28th January 2000 at 00:00
FLU. By Gina Kolata. Macmillan pound;12.99

Whether you've had yours already or simply seen all around you succumb, it will be some consolation that you are not suffering from the 1918 vintage, the most dangerous plague since the Black Death.

This popular history of "the Spanish lady" is also a history of ideas and the way they grow - of the long haul of research and the wild hunch that becomes a breakthrough.

The top estimate for the number of deaths in the 1918 worldwide outbreak of Spanish flu is 100 million, including more Americans than died in two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. A similar virus today would kill more people in a year than heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, Aids and Alzheimer's disease.

There are heroic Indiana Jones figures in this account of the earch for the killer virus - Johan Hultin, who made two visits 46 years apart to Brevig, a tiny mission village in Alaska, to exhume bodies of 1918 victims preserved in permafrost; Kirsty Duncan, the Canadian geographer who found the bodies of seven Norwegian miners who died before they could start work on a remote island; Jeffery Taubenberger, the molecular pathologist whose low-key research team in Washington made giant strides in isolating the virus; John Oxford, the British virologist who unwittingly followed the same path as Taubenberger and later joined Duncan's expedition.

This book will never be a non-fiction classic on the lines of Dava Sobel's Longitude but it is a readable treatment of big ideas, high stakes and the aftermath of tragedy on a colossal scale.

Geraldine Brennan

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