professor of East Asian Studies, professor of history, professor of science
in society and tutor of the College of Social Studies, studies the avian
Professor has Historical Interest in Flu Epidemics
|Q: Bill, your
areas of study include the history of disease. What do you think about the
speculation about avian influenza – or bird flu – that’s making recent
A: I find it fascinating that people are sitting up and taking a hard
look at the flu again. Maybe it is because recent natural disasters have
brought people’s attention in that direction. On the other hand, it is
hardly something new. Epidemiologists have been saying for years that
another pandemic is possible, just as the hydrologists and meteorologists
were saying for years that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen.
Q: Should Americans be wary of the virus spreading to the U.S.?
A: People tend to get very nervous quickly, sometimes too quickly. We
do need to watch it, as we watched SARS very closely. But I wouldn’t hit the
panic button just yet.
Q: The World Health Organization has reported that more than 65
people have died in Asia from the bird flu.
A: Influenza viruses that infect birds, which are called “avian
influenza viruses,” come in several varieties. The H5N1 strand of the
influenza virus appeared in migratory birds in Vietnam and south China, and
spread to domestic birds. It exists primarily in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia
and Indonesia but has been spreading through migratory fowl. I think that
the first human cases were seen in Hong Kong eight years ago. Humans catch
the disease from infected birds, through aerial transmission or indirect
Q: What would happen if the virus could be spread from human to
human? Could it become a global outbreak?
A: It could become a pandemic, and potentially become very deadly.
Look at the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. During this pandemic, known as
the “Spanish flu,” the disease spread across the world, killing more than 25
million people over six months. But these days, people are exposed much more
frequently to various influenza viruses, which means that we have some
immunity to a potential pandemic. So it is quite possible that a future
pandemic could be much less dangerous.
Q: What are other notable pandemics of the past century?
A: They seem to be on a 30-year cycle. There was the Asian Flu
pandemic in 1957 that started in China and spread to the United States. It
caused about 1 million deaths. A flu vaccine was developed to stop the
outbreak. The 1968 pandemic wasn’t as deadly. It started in Hong Kong and
spread to America, killing about 750,000 people worldwide.
In 1976, an Army recruit caught the swine flu, and the government thought
this could be a big outbreak. President Ford thought it might be a revival
of the 1918 influenza, and wanted to immunize all 220 million Americans at
the cost of $135 million. The flu never came, and hundreds of Americans who
were inoculated filed suits against the government in cases where side
effects of the vaccine proved fatal.
Q: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in
the absence of any vaccination or drugs, it has been estimated that in the
United States a “medium–level” pandemic could cause 89,000 to 207,000
deaths, and another 20 to 47 million people to be sick. How should we go
about containing diseases?
A: Controlling a disease like this is not a sexy thing. When disease
control works, we see nothing, there is nothing to show other than the
absence of disease, and that is hard to point to. On the other hand, when it
fails, all hell breaks lose. That is a tension in public health. Do we
mandate vaccinations and put the common good of all above individual rights?
This tension is perennial in American society and will never be resolved.
Practically speaking, I would especially recommend that anybody whose immune
system is in any compromised, such as in the case of older people, persons
with HIV, and those prone to infection should definitely get a vaccine. It
is also a good idea for people who come into contact with lots of
individuals from disparate locations—which is to say most students and
Q: What is your personal interest in the history of disease?
A: I did my dissertation on the history of tuberculosis, and teach
courses called Disease and Epidemics in a Historical Perspective and
Introduction to the History of Disease and Medicine. I’m also the author of
a book called “The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan.”
Q: Is the history of disease somewhat esoteric?
A: It sounds esoteric. People leave that topic in the corner until
they start getting sick. It’s a real common attitude to have about the
history of disease.
Q: Students in what majors are attracted to this class?
A: I get a lot of history and pre-med majors. But there are other
students in art and theater who magically seem to come out of the woodwork.
They’re realizing all of a sudden that diseases play a huge role and they
want to understand them better.
Q: Where are your degrees from?
A: My bachelor’s of art is from Elmira College, my master’s and Ph.D
are from Harvard University.
Q: In addition to the history of disease, what are your other
research interests and areas of expertise?
A: I’m interested in the history of syphilis in early modern Japan,
warfare and state formation in 16th century Japan, the historiography of
Amino Yoshihiko, an important historian of medieval Japan, the history of
medicine in Japan and the history of sexuality in modern Japan. I’m also
interested in photography in history, women’s issues and cultural change.
Q: What are some classes that you commonly teach?
A: Japanese History, History of War, Society and State, Issues in
Contemporary Historiography. I’m starting a seminar on the history of the
atomic bomb and its use on Japan.
Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection