Scientists looking for answers on the 1918 influenza pandemic in Ypres

Scientists looking for answers on the 1918 influenza pandemic in Ypres

On 7 and 8 February, some 130 scientists and interested people from all over the world will discuss in Ypres the influenza pandemic of a hundred years ago. This pandemic, which wrongly became known as the 'Spanish' Flu, caused an estimated 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide. This is a multiple of the death toll of the First World War in whose wake the disease made its advance. It was the largest and most deadly disease since the plague in the Middle Ages.

What makes the conference unique is that it brings together both historians and biomedical scientists. This is not without importance: until today we do not know what caused the 1918-19 global influenza pandemic, and it was only in 2005 that the virus responsible for it was identified. If the world is to be sufficiently armed against the next influenza pandemic, it is important to know how and where the disease originated, how the virus spread, and what mistakes were made in combating it. The question is not whether such a pandemic will occur again, but when and how.

Emergency military hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, United States. © National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C.

 

Among the speakers at the conference are some well-known names. Not only the well-known Belgian influenza commissioner Marc Van Ranst is coming to Ypres, but also baron Peter Piot, former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and until the end of 2008 director of UNAIDS. Piot is a co-discoverer of the Ebola virus and was also one of the initiators of the AIDS research. Other speakers fly over from the United States, India and South Africa.   

Ypres is also "fertile ground" for the research into the influenza virus. One of the big names in research into a universal influenza vaccine is the Ypres professor Walter Fiers, who started up the molecular biology laboratory of Ghent University in the 1960s. His successor, Professor Xavier Saelens, who is organising the conference together with In Flanders Fields Museum and who is also an authoritative voice in the research into a universal influenza vaccine, is also an inhabitant of Ypres.

"The Spanish Flu rules !”. Cartoon from a Dutch newspaper, 1918-1919

The conference is a collaboration between historians and virologists from the KU Leuven, the University of Antwerp and the University of Ghent with the In Flanders Fields Museum and is supported by the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, the Fund for Scientific Research and the City of Ypres.  

The full programme and list of speakers can be found HERE.

Top image: This digitally-colorized negative-stained transmission electron microscopic (TEM) image shows recreated 1918 influenza virions that were collected from supernatants of 1918-infected Madin-Darby Canine Kidney (MDCK) cells cultures 18 hours after infection. (Provided by: CDC/ Dr. Terrence Tumpey, Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith)

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