STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – They didn’t receive as much attention as the 1918 killer influenza pandemic, but the world faced a deadly flu epidemic in 1957 and 1968 too.
But thanks to some foresight and a little luck, the pandemic is not as deadly in the United States as it should be.
And there are lessons we can take from the plague when we look at the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 this fall.
The “Asian flu” pandemic began in Singapore in February 1957, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It spread throughout Asia during that spring, and headed to England in June.
Based on History.comMaurice Hilleman, head of respiratory disease at the Walter Reed Army Research Institute in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that the disease was a new type of flu. He issued a warning that a new pandemic had arrived, and would reach the U.S. in September.
Importantly, Hilleman convinced the company to start working on the flu vaccine to anticipate its arrival here, bypassing regulatory bodies to order to speed up the process.
When the flu struck as Hilleman predicted, the country was prepared with a vaccine.
The first wave of illness peaked in October, among children returning to school. The second wave, in January and February, is more deadly, including for seniors.
The Asian flu killed an estimated 70,000 to 116,000 Americans, and increased to 4 million worldwide. But experts suggest it would be far more deadly if it were not for the initial development of the vaccine.
In comparison, the 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million worldwide, including an estimated 650,000 in the US.
The experience with the 1957 flu was the key to fighting the next pandemic, when the “Hong Kong flu” struck the United States in September 1968.
The virus, which may have been an Asian flu mutation, began in China in July 1968 and did not fully recede until 1970, according to Brittania.com.
The 1968 strain was very contagious, Britannia.com said, with almost half a million cases reported within two weeks after their appearance.
The virus quickly reached the United States, thanks in part to soldiers returning to California from Vietnam.
By the end of December, the virus had spread throughout the United States and had reached Britain and countries in Western Europe. Australia, Japan, and several countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America are also affected.
Pandemics occur in two waves, and in most places the second wave causes more deaths than the first. While the vaccine has been developed, it became available only after the pandemic peaked in many countries.
But because the virus has cellular similarities to the 1957 virus, many people who were exposed to the previous pandemic retained some immunity to this new strain.
That made the 1968 outbreak, which claimed the lives of around 1 million people worldwide, and 100,000 in the United States, relatively mild. Most of those who died aged 65 years and over.
Unlike what we have seen with COVID-19 this year, Americans were not told to quarantine in 1957 or 1968, and the United States remained open for business during both pandemics.
That is one reason why the huge Woodstock Festival, which attracted nearly half a million people to New York, advanced in August 1969.
The 1968 presidential election, which pitted Republican Richard Nixon against Democrat Hubert Humphrey, proceeded on schedule in November, with no difference in the way ballots were cast.
This year, some pushed to vote by letter only when GOP President Donald Trump sought re-election against the alleged Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a former vice-president of two terms.
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