The 1918 influenza pandemic was particularly lethal, not only for the very young and the very old (as observed for typical influenza), but unexpectedly also for young adults, 20 to 40 years of age (pictured). It has been suggested that the increased lethality in young adults occurred because they lacked protective immunity that would be conferred by previous infection with a related virus. Reconstruction of the origins of the 1918 influenza virus provides support for this hypothesis.
Analysis of influenza virus genome sequences using a host-specific molecular clock together with seroarchaeology (analysis of stored sera for the presence of antibodies to influenza virus) indicates that the 1918 H1N1 virus arose ~1915 by reassortment of an avian influenza virus with an H1 virus that had previously emerged around 1907. The 1918 virus acquired the HA gene from the 1907 virus, and the NA gene and internal protein genes from an avian virus. This 1918 virus also infected pigs, in which descendants continue to circulate; however the human 1918 virus was displaced in 1922 by a reassortant with a distinct HA gene.
Seroarchaeology and mortality data indicate that an influenza pandemic in 1889-1893 was caused by an influenza H3N8 virus. This virus appears to have circulated until 1900, when it was replaced by a H1N8 virus (the N8 gene originating from the previously circulating H3N8 virus).
How do these events explain the unusual mortality pattern of the 1918 influenza A virus? High mortality among 20-40 year old adults might have been a consequence of their exposure to the H3N8 virus that circulated from 1889-1900. This infection provided no protection against the 1918 H1N1 virus. Protection of other age groups from lethal infection was likely a consequence of childhood exposure to N1 or H1 containing viruses (this may also have resulted in the lower than usual mortality in the elderly population). Influenza is typically highly lethal in very young children due to lack of immunologic memory.
These observations suggest that childhood exposure to influenza virus is a key predictor of virulence of a pandemic strain. Antibodies against the stalk of the HA protein protect against severe disease, but only within groups of HA subtypes (HA groups are determined by phylogenetic analysis). In 1918, antibodies against a group 2 HA subtype virus (H3) did not protect against severe disease caused by a group 1 HA subtype virus (H1). Childhood exposure might also determine mortality of seasonal influenza. For example, the high virulence of currently circulating H3N2 influenza viruses in those older than 65 years might be a consequence of infection with an H1N1 virus at a young age.
This logic can also explain mortality caused by influenza H5N1 and H7N9 viruses. Most fatalities caused by H5N1 viruses (the H5 is a group 1 HA) have been in individuals who were infected as children with an H3 virus (group 2 HA). Most fatalities caused by H7N9 viruses (group 2 HA) have occurred in individuals who were infected as children with H1N1 or H2N2 viruses (group 1 HA).
The practical consequence of this work are clearly stated by the authors:
Immunization strategies that mimic the apparently powerful lifetime protection afforded by initial childhood exposure might dramatically reduce mortality due to both seasonal and novel IAV strains.