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Frozen Planet: The cemetery that could save millions of lives

Updated Wednesday, 14th April 2010

How could six deaths, a century ago, hold the potential to save millions of lives?

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First full day in Svalbard and it is been predictably really busy. The first thing was to switch into full polar clothing mode. For me that seems to mean wearing enough clothes so that, when you are standing still, you are not cold.

At below -10C that is quite a lot.

Then, as soon as you do anything strenuous, you end up sweating. That sums up polar work to me: hot, thirsty and sweating – probably not what you imagined.

I am only here for one week and have to make as much as possible of the opportunity, so spent today we planning the next few days.

That is not as simple as it seems when there is weather to contend with, as well as all the other, more typical things, that get in the way.

One thing I had always wanted to do in was to visit the cemetery.

As I type that I know that it sounds strange. Let me explain.

The attraction of the burial ground

If I visit a cemetery near to where I live in London it is usually the carvings and memorials that grab your eye. But in polar communities to me, there is something more.

Take, for example, the cemetery on the edge of the old Antarctic whaling station of Grytviken in South Georgia.

A toast at Shackleton's grave [Image: Graham Racher under CC-BY-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon Graham Racher under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A toast at Shackleton's grave

Almost all the graves are simple crosses, and most show people who died young, working a very long way away from the place they called home. Of course there is a sadness in that, but there is also, for me, hope.

It is direct evidence that people were prepared to travel and discover things about our amazing planet. Of course Grytviken cemetery is famous for being the burial place of many peoples favourite polar explorer. It's the site of Sir Earnest Shackleton's grave.

The reason I wanted to visit the rather beautiful, dignified and simple cemetery in Longyearbyen is because it is in October 1918 six young people were buried who died in the most terrible epidemic to have hit humanity so far.

Clues to saving lives?

They died of the so called “Spanish Flu”. The global death toll of this 1918 flu pandemic dwarfed the horror of the First World War and possibly reached 100 million people.

But until recently we didn’t know the structure of the virus responsible. That is important because flu viruses mutate and could another virus similar to the 1918 strain cause a before a vaccine could be developed?

Everything changed when a Canadian scientist Kirsty Duncan realised that these Longyearbyen six were buried within permanently frozen ground (so called permafrost) and the bodies would be preserved.

Here was the possibility of obtaining biological samples of the 1918 virus.

Duncan assembled an international team consisting of Norwegian, British, American and Canadian scientists and with the support of the Norwegian Church, the team obtained biological samples they could analyse.

Amazingly, it seems the 1918 strain is similar to the virus that swept around the planet only recently. Understanding how the virus could change in the future could - quite literally - save millions of lives.

Longyearbyen cemetery Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Mark Brandon
Longyearbyen cemetery [Image: Mark Brandon]

Sad to stand here at the edge of the Longyearbyen cemetery and see those six.

Uplifting to imagine the hope they could have felt as they travelled far from home.

Inspiring to picture how they have now potentially helped millions of future lives.

Find out more

Mike Dodd on Bird flu

Statistics and epidemiology





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