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Emerg Infect Dis. 2012 Feb;18(2):201-7. doi: 10.3201/eid1802.102042.

Pathogenic responses among young adults during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

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Australian Army Malaria Research Institute, Enoggera, Queensland, Australia.


Of the unexplained characteristics of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the extreme mortality rate among young adults (W-shaped mortality curve) is the foremost. Lack of a coherent explanation of this and other epidemiologic and clinical manifestations of the pandemic contributes to uncertainty in preparing for future pandemics. Contemporaneous records suggest that immunopathologic responses were a critical determinant of the high mortality rate among young adults and other high-risk subgroups. Historical records and findings from laboratory animal studies suggest that persons who were exposed to influenza once before 1918 (e.g., A/H3Nx 1890 pandemic strain) were likely to have dysregulated, pathologic cellular immune responses to infections with the A/H1N1 1918 pandemic strain. The immunopathologic effects transiently increased susceptibility to ultimately lethal secondary bacterial pneumonia. The extreme mortality rate associated with the 1918-19 pandemic is unlikely to recur naturally. However, T-cell-mediated immunopathologic effects should be carefully monitored in developing and using universal influenza vaccines.

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