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Bingo CardScientists think they’ve found the missing piece of the 1918 flu pandemic, which didn’t just kill many people, but killed otherwise young and healthy people: those most affected had not been exposed to similar strains in childhood.

H1N1, H5N7, H10N8… these all denote different flu shapes (more or less). The antibodies you make will overlap between similar strains, but some are wildly different. According to the new data, flu strains you’re exposed to in childhood will protect you as you age. When the 1918 flu pandemic happened, those 20-40 didn’t have any overlapping antibodies from childhood to help fight it off. (Unless you have the exact right antibody, you’ll probably still get sick, just not as badly). And even mismatched flu exposure is better than none.

This new information better helps researchers to understand what might happen if another strain jumps from animals to humans, and how to best help protect the world’s population (basically, create vaccines that mimic the effect of childhood exposure).

With several virulent strains around the world quickly mutating and threatening to be the next pandemic, the risk of a mismatch may very well be high. Gather what immunity you can, and support your immune system—immunity aside, the biggest risk is having a weakened immune system. The people usually affected by flu are the very young and old, those whose immune systems are naturally weakened.

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