The FLU is back: Mind your H’s and N’s

With flu season in the headlines, curator Diane Wendt in the Division of Medicine and Science looks back at flu prevention dating to 1918. 

 

Left: Sherman’s Influenza Vaccine No. 38, 1937. Center: Influenza Virus Vaccine, 1945-46. Influenza Vaccine, Monovalent Type A, 1958-59.
Left: Sherman’s Influenza Vaccine No. 38, 1937. Center: Influenza Virus Vaccine, 1945-46. Influenza Vaccine, Monovalent Type A, 1958-59.

Do you remember the "swine flu" pandemic of 2009? If you are like me, you don't think much about influenza except when it is back in the headlines and people are scrambling to get vaccinated. Only then do those strange H's and N's (H1N1?— H3N2? — H5N1?) remind us that the flu bug is an ever changing beast; and we owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who spend their lives studying, tracking, and protecting us from this virus.

There are many ways to fight the spread of this disease. After the 2009 flu pandemic, these things became a fixture in our bathrooms at the museum:

Sanitizer station
And a colleague of mine, brought me this back from a trip to Japan:

 

Yes, it's a Hello Kitty face mask
Yes, it's a Hello Kitty face mask

 

So now is a good time to take another look at the museum's collection of influenza vaccines. Vaccines are not, for the most part, very interesting to LOOK at. Who, after all, really LOOKS at a vaccine? When I receive a shot, I deliberately look away. But these objects are imprinted with bits and pieces of history that reflect our continuing struggle with influenza and our attempts to understand and control it. 

Diane Wendt is Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 9:47 am EST in From the Collections