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Last Updated: Friday, 30 January, 2004, 20:08 GMT
Flu victim exhumed after 85 years
Phyllis Burns
Phyllis Burns was 20 when she died
Scientists are preparing to exhume the body of a woman who died of flu 85 years ago to find out how the virus killed millions across Europe.

Phyllis Burn died aged 20 in 1918, a victim of the 20th Century's worst flu epidemic, which killed more than 50 million people.

She was buried in a lead coffin, thought to be virtually airtight, in Twickenham, south-west London.

Scientists wearing protective clothing will remove lung samples from the body.

Professor John Oxford, who is leading the investigation in the search for genetic clues, said his team would be taking no chances.

I think she would have wanted to help in any way she could
Hilary Burn-Callander, Miss Burn's niece
They will work inside a tent erected over the grave and the body will not be removed from the cemetery.

"I don't think there is any chance of finding an infectious virus, but you never know," said Mr Oxford.

"We are treading into the unknown a bit."

Many victims of the 1918 epidemic died within a few days, effectively of suffocation.

The team hopes to find a "genetic footprint" which might explain why people became so sick.

They could then try to make a vaccine which takes account of the gene, or a better anti-viral drug.

The move has the support of Miss Burn's niece, Hilary Burn-Callander, who told BBC London she was a bit surprised at first by the request.

"I didn't know what to think to be honest," she said.

"But I think she would have wanted to help in any way [she could] and certainly, as a family, we would."

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