Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Influenza Science Behind Dormant

I love research, and I did a lot of it before and during the writing of my current Work in Progress. This is the first blog in a series touching on the science behind Dormant. I will post one a week until I run out of topics. Even a science fiction novel needs a foundation in real science, at least in the view of this geeky writer. 

Flu Virus Sculpture by Luke Jerram
In Dormant, journalist Jackie Davenport must stop a pandemic caused by the awakening of a dormant and lethal strain of flu. 

My research into the flu started with an interest in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Flu is spread through coughs and sneezes. This is why health departments distributed Cover Your Cough posters during the H1N1 Influenza pandemic.

My novel is set during the winter for a reason. Influenza tends to be more infectious in cold temperatures. The virus can lie dormant in its host during the warmer months, waiting to grow stronger and become a full-fledged infection during the cold winter months. While dormant, the virus migrates globally and mixes with other viral strains before returning as a genetically different virus. This difference helps it evade the immune system.

Why is temperature such an important indicator of flu virulence? Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may have answered this question. According to an article in Nature Chemical Biology, cold winter temperatures cause the virus’ outer envelope (covering) to harden to a rubbery gel. This could shield the virus during its transmission. Warmer summer temperatures cause the protective gel to melt to a liquid phase. Because this liquid phase is not enough to protect the virus against the elements, it loses its ability to spread from person to person.

Vaccinations play a vital part in stopping viral outbreaks. But what if there is not enough vaccine? I already mentioned the vaccine shortfall during the H1N1 Influenza pandemic. That this lack did not become a bigger problem is a tribute to the efforts of public health professionals who worked around the clock to distribute the limited supply to priority groups with an intentional plan that gradually widened the availability as supply caught up with demand.

All of this creates interesting possibilities for modes of transmission and ways to thwart a flu outbreak. I won’t spoil the book for you here by telling you how much of this information Jackie learns and whether she is able to stop the pandemic.

The Science Behind Dormant

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