I keep hearing about a terrible pandemic flu that originated in Asia and swept the world. This flu killed 1.1 to 2 million people globally and 116,000 Americans. Like COVID-19, it came during economic prosperity in America, hit hardest in the cities on the two American coasts, and eventually led to a global recession. The time was 1957-1958, and I was 12 or 13 years old. I do not remember even hearing about a pandemic at the time.
Fred Lucas wrote about the COVID-19 and said that people compare it to the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 that killed 50 million people globally and 675,000 Americans. Fewer compare COVID-19 to the Asian flu of 1957-1958. He suggested that people look at the Asian flu in four different ways.
1. The Death Rates
The projected COVID-19 death toll may be in line with the 1957 virus only because of aggressive mitigation efforts and lockdowns. Some computer models have projected COVID-19 could have killed more than 2 million in the U.S. had the country proceeded business as usual….
The H2N2 Asian flu of 1957 is ranked as the seventh-biggest killer of Americans in history…. No. 1 on that list was the Civil War, followed by HIV/AIDS, the Spanish flu, and World War II.
Based on estimates that COVID-19 could kill between 100,000 and 240,000 in America, it will rank fifth if it reaches the high point. The yellow fever will rank sixth.
COVID-19 would be ranked ninth place if it reaches the lower estimate of 100,000 deaths in the U.S., behind World War I….
2. Spread of the Asian Flu
Birds carried the Asian flu. They carried H1 flu viruses onto another surface protein, H2, and made it more lethal because humans hadn’t encountered H2 before and had little immunity….
The lethal 1918 flu was H1, but because of humans’ exposure to it, it developed into a more ordinary strain by the late 1950s….
Dr. Maurice Hilleman, chief of respiratory diseases at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, warned that the pandemic was headed to the United States.
Although there were no lockdowns ordered by governments, the pandemic caused a global economic downturn and in late 1957, the U.S. stock market crashed, leading to a recession in 1958.
3. Politics of H2N2
President Dwight Eisenhower initially resisted a federally supported vaccination program, and that may have led to a spike in deaths….
However, in August 1957, Eisenhower asked Congress for $500,000 in new spending and authority to shift $2 million from other areas to fight the pandemic. His goal was to provide 60 million vaccines. By early November, about 40 million doses were available and the spread of the flu began to slow substantially….
A political side drama also occurred when Eisenhower refused to get a vaccine before it was widely available to the public, because he didn’t want special treatment.
Public Health Service officials issued an advisory for older Americans with a history of heart problems to be vaccinated as a priority. The warning largely was aimed at Eisenhower, who yielded to pressure and got the vaccine Aug. 26.
4. Finding a Vaccine
That said, the medical world had a big advantage by the time doctors and scientists figured the pandemic was on the way. As opposed to COVID-19, medical scientists weren’t starting from scratch in developing a vaccine….
Although it’s not clear how he compares to Dr. Anthony Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx, Hilleman was the hero of the story by several accounts….
Similar to today, officials had to bypass regulatory hurdles….
Although the casualty rate was high, it likely would have been far higher without the vaccine.
President Ronald Reagan presented Hilleman with the National Medal of Science in 1988 for his contributions to public health. The doctor died in 2005 after helping to develop more than 40 vaccines.
How did I miss both a pandemic and a recession? Could it be that we were already living at poverty level and were sort of isolated on the farm? I wish Dad and Mom were still living, so that I could ask them about it. I asked my oldest living sibling if she remembered a pandemic in 1957, and she did not. She would have been 23 years old, married with several children, and living in a different isolated area where the virus apparently did not reach.
I remember other things from that time. I remember Eisenhower being President, and I remember when John F. Kennedy was running for President. I remember when polio was rampaging across America. It peaked in 1952 and must have been scary for parents. I remember a whole summer when we were not allowed to swim in any of the ponds or canals around the farm. I had a childhood friend who was severely infected with polio. He wore a brace from his ankle to his waist for numerous years. I do not remember when he got the brace off, but I think that it was before high school. I saw him at the 50th year class reunion, and he still walked with a limp but got around fine.
I remember standing in line in the gymnasium of the elementary school waiting for my turn to be vaccinated for polio when I was about nine years old. I remember feeling grateful that a vaccination had been discovered, so it must have been frightening for children. I wonder how many people will be grateful if/when a vaccination is discovered for COVID-19.
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