Flu claims Antarctic researcher

A lot of people in the scientific community are struggling to come to terms with the death of Antarctic historian and museum curator Natalie Cadenhead, who died at Christchurch Hospital on July 24 of influenza.

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 9.49.17 amNatalie was only 47, a fit and healthy tramper as this report from The Press explains.

She didn’t get the flu vaccine, because, her husband George Rogers explained, she had allergies to certain medicines:

“Reflecting now, it probably would have been good to have her immunised, but being healthy and with her allergies, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

I didn’t know Natalie, but plenty of colleagues did. Natalie spent several seasons on the ice at Scott Base. Her research interests included aspects of the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, the TAE/IGY base buildings and Antarctic science. She was also responsible for the Antarctic object based collection at Canterbury Museum and was associate editor of Antarctic, the journal of the New Zealand Antarctic Society.

She was, I’m told, also one of the original members of the Science Communicator’s Association.

In a fitting tribute, friends and colleagues flew the New Zealand flag at Scott Base at half mast.

Natalie’s death is a reminder of the fact that the swine flu virus (H1N1) killed a number of healthy people when the pandemic hit in 2009.

This Science article from 2010 reports on research by paediatrician Fernando Polack of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee that suggests a reason why swine flu hits the young and healthy particularly hard:

After looking at lung samples from 75 young and middle-aged adult victims of the 2009 pandemic, they found an uncanny amount of a protein called C4d, a molecule that normally binds to antibodies to form virus-fighting immune complexes.

When antibodies fight a virus under normal conditions, Polack says, they call in C4d, a compound that can destroy viruses. In the case of flu, most people had antibodies to seasonally circulating influenza strains, but these antibodies were a poor match to the pandemic virus. Although they recognized the virus and latched on to it, they weren’t able to stop it from replicating, says Polack. When the antibodies and the C4d formed the immune complexes, Polack speculates that the system spiraled out of control. Instead of punching holes in the viruses, the immune complexes punched holes in the victims’ veins and flooded their lungs with water and plasma. “The immune system gets fooled into activating this particular immune defense, and it causes harm,” says Niranjan Bhat, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not part of the research.

This was less likely to happen in young children and infants, with few or no antibodies against seasonal flu strains, says Polack. And elderly people had antibodies to the H1N1 strain that circulated in the United States until 1957—a descendant of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918—which are known to be a much better match to the 2009 H1N1 strain; so the flood of C4d generally didn’t occur in them. When the team looked at lung samples from victims of the seasonal flu, they found only trace amounts of C4d, which seemed to confirm their suspicions.

Natalie’s death is a good reminder of the importance of getting vaccinated in time for the flu season each year.

Below is a video that feature’s Natalie and Sir David Attenborough talking about Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans.

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