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By Holly Jones on

What are pandemics and why can they be so deadly?

One of the first events to be announced for the 2018 Manchester Science Festival is a cutting-edge dance piece inspired by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Pandemics and the spread of disease have been reflected in previous Manchester Science Festival programmes. Aeon: Patient X in 2017 and Outbreak! in 2016 were both sell-out events exploring this theme.

And this year we will be presenting Contagion, a brand new piece by Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in the stunning surroundings of IWM North.

But what is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?

While an epidemic is a disease seen in several people at the same time across different communities, a pandemic is caused by a new disease that spreads globally.

Flu pandemics are caused when we encounter a new strain of the influenza virus. The influenza A strain of the virus, the one that most commonly causes illness in humans, is characterised by two surface proteins: Haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).

Haemagglutinin has 18 different subtypes (H1–H18) and neuraminidase has 11 different subtypes (N1–N11). Different combinations of these surface proteins cause different strains of influenza. The flu is constantly mutating and changing, and when the virus experiences a major type of change it can result in a new haemagglutinin or neuraminidase surface protein.

When humans encounter this new type of flu, it can cause a pandemic because we’re not yet immune to it. This is what happened in 1918, when Spanish flu (H3N2) appeared for the first time.

Flu season is a reminder of just how debilitating the influenza virus can be. Australian flu (H3N2) has made the headlines this year, and although not expected to cause a pandemic on the scale of Spanish flu, the subtype H3N2 strain has previously caused deaths (estimated) in the millions, during both the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic and the Asian flu pandemic of 1957. It now circulates as seasonal flu, infecting around 1 billion people per year but still causing an estimated 500,000 deaths.

Influenza can be particularly nasty in young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. The virus can cause death through inflammation of the respiratory system, or by making its host more vulnerable to bacterial infections such as pneumonia. It is believed that the majority of deaths caused by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic were as a result of pneumonia.


Contagion will take place on Sunday 21 October, at Imperial War Museum North. Tickets and more information about the performance will be available closer to the time.

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