Influenza: History, Science, Strains, Detection, and Protection

Every middle school student has heard of the flu. They may even have had it, or more likely, they have had some other virus described as the flu. Most students would consider the flu unpleasant, but probably not potentially fatal. Now is a good time to help students learn more about influenza. But where do you start? I have put together some highly regarded resources on the web, designed to provide you with 1) solid background knowledge and 2) a variety of teaching resources.

A study of influenza aligns well with the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives,  Science as Inquiry, and Life Science standards of the National Science Education Standards as well as the notion of systems thinking. Perhaps the best pedagogical approach would be to start with personal and social perspectives. That way we start with the somewhat familiar and then bridge to the unfamiliar, more abstract notions of virus and epidemiology.

What Is the Flu?

Open this question up to the class and record all student responses on the board or, better yet, chart paper that can be saved and revisited later. The responses can serve as a pre-assessment or benchmark. Do not pass any judgment or offer any corrective feedback at this point. When students have run out of ideas, tell them it’s time to do a little research to find out whether what they know is accurate and complete.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?
Begin with this concise PDF from the National Institutes of Health. Page 2 is a Spanish translation. Most students will be able to relate to the listed symptoms. While both colds and the flu are caused by a virus, they are distinctly different. Is vomiting or nausea on the list? Are antibiotics listed as a treatment? Do students want to revise their chart paper list?

History and Society: What Is a Pandemic?

Below are three articles, all published up to four years before the recent swine flu outbreak, that will familiarize you with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. You may choose to use one of these, in perhaps a modified form, to help students get a concept of pandemic, its impact on society, and what was learned from it.

1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics

Spanish Flu of 1918: Could It Happen Again?

The 1918 Flu Killed Millions. Does It Hold Clues for Today?

The Science of Influenza

These resources will familiarize you with the more technical aspects of a virus, how the body responds, and how antiviral drugs work. You will recognize the puzzle-solving aspect of science. Observations inspire hypotheses, which are tested and tweaked as more observations are gathered.

This simple simulation illustrates how quickly a virus spreads and how scientists use observations to track its origin.

The Big Picture Book of Viruses
This site contains more information than almost anyone would want. However, scroll down to see several electron micrographs of various influenza strains.

Image of bacteria cell covered in viruses
Although this is not an image of a flu virus attacking a human cell, it does give the viewer the sense of scale — that viruses are much smaller than bacteria. Be mindful that bacteria are, in turn, much smaller than our body cells.

Antibodies Neutralize Multiple Flu Strains
This March 2009 page from the National Institutes of Health reports:

Two separate scientific teams have discovered antibodies that attach to a vulnerable region in a broad range of influenza A viruses, including the H5N1 avian virus, the 1918 pandemic influenza virus, and seasonal H1N1 flu viruses. The finding could potentially help scientists develop tools to prevent or treat the flu during an outbreak or pandemic.

Antiviral Drugs and H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu)
We know that antibiotics don’t work against viruses, and up until recently we were told there was nothing we could do about viral infections but wait them out. In April of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described the benefits of some antiviral drugs: “There are four influenza antiviral drugs approved for use in the United States (oseltamivir, zanamivir, amantadine and rimantadine). The swine influenza A (H1N1) viruses that have been detected in humans in the United States and Mexico are resistant to amantadine and rimantadine . . .”

What Is the Swine Flu?

These resources focus on the current H1N1 strain.

Q&A: Why Is Swine Flu Such a Big Deal?
This article points out that this particular strain is killing young, otherwise healthy people. Contrast that with the fact that older people and very young children are more often victims of the flu, most dying of pneumonia. That is cause for concern.

H1N1 (Swine Flu)
The official page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with updated confirmed cases and their locations. A discussion with students of the science of epidemiology would be appropriate here.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published May 4, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/9/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

44 thoughts on “Influenza: History, Science, Strains, Detection, and Protection

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