Scientists thank villagers for role in flu study

Researchers were allowed to exhume victims of pandemic

Posted: Thursday, December 08, 2005

BREVIG MISSION - Two white wooden crosses stand unwavering in this wind-scrubbed village at the edge of the Bering Sea, marking a mass grave that holds the remains of dozens of people who died in the pandemic nearly 90 years ago, all but wiping out the community.

A group of scientists visited the grave this week, huddling against biting winds that plunged temperatures to 20 below zero, to commemorate the key role the tiny Inupiat Eskimo village of Brevig Mission played in a groundbreaking study of the 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions around the world.

Before visiting the grave, researchers told villagers gathered at the local school that science could someday gain a better understanding of modern strains of bird flu and the threat it poses to people - and it would be the result of tissue samples preserved in the permafrost here.

This crucial progress was possible only because of the villagers, said retired pathologist Johan Hultin, who exhumed flu victims in 1951 and 1997.

"Without your permission to let me find the right specimen, nothing would have happened," Hultin told the crowd lining the bleachers in the school gymnasium Tuesday. "Thank you so much."

Joining him was Jeffery Taubenberger, a pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and one of the researchers who helped reconstruct the 1918 flu virus earlier this year.

Taubenberger was studying the remains of World War I soldiers who died in the epidemic. Lung tissue samples from the Inupiat villagers later submitted by Hultin gave scientists missing gene segments.

"What happened in 1918 was one of the worst things that has happened on earth," Taubenberger said. "Nothing can erase the great tragedy of all the people who died. But if we can learn something about the virus, it's a hope that it won't happen again."

The pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide, by some estimates. Here, the flu claimed 72 of the 80 villagers in a span of five days. Today about 300 people live in the village, located about 65 miles northwest of Nome.

Hultin was a young microbiology graduate student when he first collected tissue samples in 1951 after approval by tribal leaders. Assisted by colleagues, he hoped to find the deadly strain in the specimens recovered from four bodies, but they failed to find any signs of a live virus.

The turning point came more than four decades later, in 1997, when Hultin learned about Taubenberger's soldier research. Hultin contacted Taubenberger and offered his help to supplement samples of the flu virus found in two of the soldiers.

His source again was the mass grave at Brevig Mission. And once again, village leaders lent their support.

Rita Olanna's grandmother was among the handful of villagers to survive the 1918 flu. She died just two years ago at age 97. Olanna, who was 10 years old when Hultin first launched his study there, said elders then feared that reopening the grave would expose them to the deadly virus.

But as they did decades later, villagers realized the work offered hope for a cure in future epidemics, said Olanna, 64.

"The people were convinced the community would benefit, even if they didn't want their ancestors to be dug up," she said. "This was something that needed to be done."

After four young men in the village helped Hultin reopen the mass grave, he found the condition of his original study subjects had deteriorated. But the remains of a fifth flu victim, an overweight woman, was remarkably intact, probably because she was insulated by a thick layer of fat, Hultin said.

"When I saw her lungs, then I knew there was a virus," he said. "It came to me that here is the answer that will shed some light on the 1918 virus."

The samples completed the scientific puzzle, leading to the first reconstruction of an infectious agent behind a historic pandemic. The work offers proof that the 1918 flu originated in birds, according to researchers, who released their findings in October.

The virus - known by scientists worldwide as the Brevig virus - has been restructured in living form, locked away at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers said.

The study could be crucial in dealing with the current avian flu that's killed dozens of people in Southeast Asia but has yet to mutate like the earlier bug and spread between humans instead of being transmitted to people coming in contact with birds, said George Happ, a University of Alaska Fairbanks research biologist who was among the scientists visiting Brevig Mission on Tuesday.

Happ is working with Taubenberger to monitor migrating birds passing through Alaska, considered by many researchers as a possible entry point for the Asian bird flu.

"It can scare us in the sense that the 1918 flu began spreading between people and that could happen again," Happ said. "There's still a lot more research to be done."

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