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Influenza (1977-1978 – Russian Flu)

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Tags: Influenza, Flu, Russian Flu, red influenza, red flu, virus, cause of death,

1977: Russian Flu, a Juvenile, Age-restricted Pandemic, and the Return of Human H1N1 Virus

Our obsession with geographic eponyms for a disease of worldwide distribution is best illustrated by Russian, or later red influenza or red flu, which first came to attention in November 1977, in the Soviet Union. However, it was later reported as having first occurred in northeastern China in May of that year (26). It quickly became apparent that this rapidly spreading epidemic was almost entirely restricted to persons <25 years of age and that, in general, the disease was mild, although characterized by typical symptoms of influenza. The age distribution was attributed to the absence of H1N1 viruses in humans after 1957 and the subsequent successive dominance of the H2N2 and then the H3N2 subtypes.

When antigenic and molecular characterization of this virus showed that both the HA and NA antigens were remarkably similar to those of the 1950s, this finding had profound implications. Where had the virus been that it was relatively unchanged after 20 years? If serially (and cryptically) transmitted in humans, antigenic drift should have led to many changes after 2 decades. Reactivation of a long dormant infection was a possibility, but the idea conflicts with all we know of the biology of the virus in which a latent phase has not been found. Had the virus been in a deep freeze? This was a disturbing thought because it implied concealed experimentation with live virus, perhaps in a vaccine. Delayed mutation and consequent evolutionary stasis in an animal host are not unreasonable, but in what host? And if a full-blown epidemic did originate, it would be the first to do so in the history of modern virology, and a situation quite unlike the contemporary situation with H5N1 and its protracted epizootic phase. Thus, the final answer to the 1977 epidemic is not yet known.

Russian Flu (1977–1978)

In 1977, a strain of H1N1 appeared. It was a "benign" pandemic, primarily affecting people born after 1950, because the older generation had protective immunity resulting from prior experience with H1N1 strains. The 1977 virus was similar to other A/H1N1 viruses that had circulated prior to 1957. The virus was included in the 1978–79 vaccine.

While not nearly as severe as the others, there was a fourth influenza pandemic in the 20th century. The Russian Flu involved the virus (H1N1) and primarily sickened the young. The older population had carry-over protection from earlier exposure to H1N1 strains. By January 1978, the virus had spread around the world.

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