The 1997 Hong Kong flu, which killed one third of its victims, was caused by a single mutation that allowed the virus to disable part of the body’s immune system?and it could happen again. “If this mutated gene is put into an ordinary strain of flu you turn it into a nasty virus,” says Robert Webster, of St Jude Children’s Hospital. “It provides an explanation for the virulence of the H5N1 Hong Kong epidemic and possibly for the 1918 epidemic.”

There are three strains of flu, known as A, B and C. Type A causes large outbreaks and constantly mutates in order to defeat the body’s immune system. Type A and B strains of the virus cause 100,000 hospital stays and 20,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone. In 1918, a type of strain A killed 30 million people worldwide. Most of the victims were young people, which is not usually the case.

The Hong Kong outbreak in 1997 infected 18 people and killed six. There were much fewer casualties because of fast intervention?the entire chicken population of Hong Kong was slaughtered. Chickens act as a reservoir for the disease, so this stopped the spread of the flu virus.

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