As a survivor of the Asian flu, I remember 1957 vividly. Times have changed since, but there are key similarities between that crisis and the coronavirus.

Asian flu
A doctor gives a nurse the first Asian flu vaccine shot to be administered in New York, August 16, 1957. (AP Photo/File)

By Harvey Morris

I survived the Asian flu.

It is worth noting at the outset, given current concerns about the spreading coronavirus, that the overwhelming majority of my fellow sufferers also recovered from the pandemic that swept the world from 1957 and into the following year.

Such was the infection rate, however, that by the time the outbreak had run its course and a vaccine had been developed, between two and four million people around the world had died.

In Britain alone, nine million people caught the bug and 14,000 died of it. At one point, one-in-two schoolchildren in London were off sick. I was one of them.

There are similarities and differences between the two pandemics and the manner in which the public and medical and political establishments responded.

The death rate from COVID-19 might turn out to be somewhat higher than that of the Asian flu. The World Health Organisation predicts the toll in the present outbreak could range from 0.7 to 4%, depending on the quality of health-care systems.

How did the world cope in 1957?

The 1957 virus, which originated in China as a strain of the avian flu, disproportionately targeted young people along with the always more vulnerable elderly and frail. 

Although widespread, the pandemic was less severe than the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which killed more people than the world war that preceded it.

The late 1950s was a very different world and a very different Britain. World War Two had ended only a dozen years before. The U.K. National Health Service, established to provide free health care to all, had yet to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Post-war London was a bomb-battered, dingy and already unhealthy place. The Great Smog of 1952, in an era when raw coal was still the primary source of domestic heating, had killed 10,000 Londoners.

People followed the news via their daily paper or the sparse bulletins of the BBC. It was The Times newspaper that first reported in April 1957 that an influenza epidemic had affected thousands in the then-British colony of Hong Kong. As it spread through Asia, a million in India were affected by June. Long before the era of mass tourism, it then rapidly swept around the world.

So, what was the international reaction and how did the world cope with the emergence of a new strain of virus to which the human population had no immunity?

I’m not sure hand sanitiser existed then.

Those of us of a certain age like to imagine we grew up at a time when Keep Calm and Carry On was more than a slogan on a coffee mug or a souvenir tea towel.

In reality, people then — as now — were concerned and even panicked by the approach of the disease and its potential impact. A 2009 brief history of the pandemic in the British Journal of General Practice quotes a contemporary medic’s complaint about “the scare stuff in the lay press”.

Then, as now, the government took steps to mitigate the crisis. Emergency funds were put aside to pay benefits to sick workers. Then, as now, experts advised the authorities to mobilise reserves of health workers and to relieve doctors of the burden of signing sick notes.

But I don’t recall anyone wearing a protective mask, and I’m not sure that hand sanitiser was even available.

The health ministry advised the public, via the radio, not to visit the doctor if they felt the flu coming on but to stay at home and take aspirin. Some hospital wards nevertheless were forced to close as staff fell ill. Up to a third of community doctors caught the bug.

‘Half the teaching staff were victims.’

One symptom among young boys was a profuse nosebleed. That’s what took me eventually by ambulance to the local emegency ward. Exciting! A kindly nurse stuffed my nostrils with bandage and after that I was on the mend.

Schools remained open. A fellow classmate — we were both 11 at the time — recalled this week: “Half the teaching staff were victims and consequently the timetable collapsed. We spent our time in mixed class groups supervised by random teachers. We were told to read and wait for symptoms.”

Apart from the health concerns, there was a fear that the pandemic could damage the fragile post-war recovery. “Setback in Production: Recession through Influenza,” ran a headline in the Manchester Guardian.

The World Bank estimated in 2008 that a future pandemic on the scale of the Asian flu might slash global GDP by around 2%.

The economic effect this time around could be as much the result of an over-reaction to the threat as of the impact of the disease itself.

People are right to be concerned about the coronavirus. But even if you catch the bug, it will almost certainly not kill you. It’s easy to say “don’t panic,” but it remains the best advice.

Keep calm. And wash your hands!

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. How many people died from the Asian flu?
  2. Why can a pandemic hurt the economy?
  3. What is the difference between an epidemic and pandemic?

Harvey Morris was a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and Financial Times. He covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas. He has written three books on the Middle East and is co-author, with John Bulloch, of the 1992 “No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds.”

33 Comments

Asian flu v. coronavirus: A different time, similar problem

  1. I took care of my mother, father and brother all sick at same time with Asian Flu in 1958 at age 10. I never got it. I have never had a bout of any other flu. I do now get flu shots…just in case. I pray my immunity keeps hold. I do have asthma and have had bronchitis…but never a flu strain. It would be interesting if someone is doing any research with information. Those getting this flu or those who have died, whether or not they had the Asian flue. Any information on this?

  2. I had the Asian flu in winter 1957. Dr gave mean antibiotics and it turned out that I had an sljergic reaction to the drug/ a nasty rash. Had a lot of dizziness- I remember lying in bed with the room spinning . A very bad illness. My 3 roommates did not succumb. Hoping that somewhere along the way that I have built up some immunity. I as m now in my Mid-80s and don’t need that kind of illness.

  3. I also had the Asian flu. I was home from school for 2 weeks and my mom sent me back too soon. I had a relapse and lost another 2 weeks. Something I read recently about the flu alerted me. My mother was pregnant but I can’t remember if she had the flu but my baby brother was diagnosed as a blue baby when he was born and died three months later. They said that pregnant women and children were the most affected. I also read that those who survived that flu were Immuned from the Hong Kong flu. I know I never got SARS,h1n1 or any other flu again. Yes I get a flu shot every year. Maybe someday they will discover that we are Immuned from this

  4. I had the Asian flu in 1957 while I was in high school. I was 14 or 15. It hit me very hard and was in bed for a couple of weeks with 103 fever, severe headache and just very sick. My mom and dad did not get it thought. My mom had had the Spanish flu in 1918 and was very sick. Maybe she had some immunity. It took me 2 months to gain back my strength as this flu took everything out of me. Some years later I got the Hong Kong flu along with my husband and young daughter and baby. All four of us sick together was pure hell! This was early 1969. My husband had it so bad they almost hospitalized him. I haven’t had any flu since and sure don’t want this Coronavirus.

  5. Had the Asian flu in 1957 at age 11. Was in bed for a week or more only remember my mother using rubbing alcohol to control my fever which was high, has hallucinations, was screaming. After recovery was so weak I could not stand up. Have not had flu since and get flu shot every year. I usually do get light colds and coughs in the winter

  6. I had the 1957 Asian Flu while at Indiana University.
    We were isolated from everyone and it was a very bad flu!
    I was sick for over three weeks.
    I never got the flu again although I have had colds.
    I do get a flu shot every year.
    Good luck to every one of you!

  7. I wonder if, having had the Asian flu (which I had), makes one more or less vulnerable to the Coronavirus…or no difference. Does any medical expert out there have any idea?

      1. Thanks again for your question. Here’s what our health correspondent, Maggie Fox, says: “Influenza and coronaviruses are completely different viruses. Immunity to one would not affect immunity to another.”

        Keep reading News-Decoder. And keep those comments and questions coming!

  8. Whilst square bashing in the RAF, I along with 66% of fellow squadron members’ went sick with the Asian Flu. I spent 2 weeks in a RAF hospital having bed baths to keep me cool. The daily message from Matron was “Drink and Widdle”. Over the years I have had very few colds and still surviving at current 81 years of age.

  9. I will never forget the day in 1957 when we were called into the assembly hall at my school in the UK to be informed that school was closing immediately due to the large number of absentees with Asian flu. On the bus journey home I was planning with great excitement how I was going to use this unexpected holiday. Lots of fishing,bike rides and then…..that evening I began to shiver and feel ill. I spent the best part of the next 2 weeks of the school closure in bed!!!

  10. I was doing my national service at RAF sembawang in Singapore in 1956 when the camp was completely shut down with Asian flu I had a small infection,
    When I had completed my national service in September 1957 I returned to Britain the flue then was just arriving in Britain at that time I got a mild form of it again,
    Hope I am now safe from this pandemic,
    As I 85years old,

  11. I remember it like yesterday I had just been called up National Service and weeks later it struck,my Company was 160 strong living in old billets in Aldershot.All but myself and one other never got the virus it was are jobs to keep all the fires lit and kept on 24hrs a day, it was hard graft but we never lost a soldier.

  12. I experienced Asian flu in Dec. 1957 about 10 days before my wedding. I experienced it again in March,1958 but less severely. I remember the headache was really awful and I was bedridden for a week or more with the first bout and a week in 1958. I have not had a serious bout of flu since.

  13. I had the Asian flu in 1957 . Traveled to Michigan and was in bed in my motel for a week . Suffered , didn’t eat finally got better and started back to Wisconsin but got sick on the way , went to a Hotel and
    went to bed for several more days . Lost weight , got home had to shovel heavy snow to get into my house was a young man then . Now I am 93 and do NOT want to get this one .

    1. I too had Asian flu in Autumn 1957. 16 years old and on my first trip in the Merchant Navy. On the way back to Hamburg from Galveston with a cargo of grain I became ill. On arrival at Hamburg I was taken to the hospital for tropical diseases where I remain ed for a couple of weeks. Since then have never contracted flu and am hoping that I have some sort of immunity to Corona virus. Time
      will tell.

    2. Loved your experience you shared and appreciate your candid feelings about it…it must have been awful. I was born 10 years later but I sure do appreciate you sharing! YOU will NOT get this virus! You’ve got a couple decades left! Way to LIVE!!!👍🏼

  14. This is Peter again.As well as Asian flu,perhaps we can learn something from the Spanish ‘flu of 1918?My maternal grandfather Ernie Perry had been transferred to Didcot ,having been promoted to driver from fireman on the Great Western Railway but in 1918 he contracted the Spanish ‘flu and his life was in the balance,but his lodgings were on a farm and the farmer’s wife gave him a remedy for swine fever and this saved his life.Perhaps scientists might find what ingredient or ingredients in that could be identified to provide a suitable drug to fight the present virus.

  15. Looking at the Covid 19 data, at first glance it looks like “the elderly” are by -far the- most susceptible. On the other hand, this group seems to closely correspond to those who were alive in 1957, hence, when the Asian flu hit. Is that by chance, or has that group developed immune response the that causes the pneumonia?

  16. This is Joan again …. I forgot to say that I was 11 and suffered Asian flu too. I have been fairly thin since too – but that might be genetic? Be well all.

  17. I suddenly projectile vomited my morning porridge. I collapsed into a jelly with a major, major headache I can still remember and I am 73. My father scooped me up over his shoulder to remove me to my bedroom. I remember being very worried that I would be in trouble. Post war parents were an unhappy lot on the whole. They had suffered so much. I think I was actually in bed for weeks. I heard I had lost a few of my best friends. My mother read endless books to me. My eyes and head hurt too much for me to read.

    It was a very horrible illness. I will never forget. I haven’t had flu since. I have been susceptible to bronchitis and endless migraines since. Handwashing and social isolation will be a way of life for me for a while.

    Back to where we were …..’wash your hands and sit up, wash your hands and be ready for church, wash your hands and be ready for school, wash your hands you have just stroked the dog …..’ remember??!!

  18. I also had the Asian flu 1957. Along with my mom and my brother, it was bad I was 12 years old. My grandmother took care of us, she never got it but drank shots of rum….. maybe that helped?
    I also do not get the flu.

  19. I, too, had the Asian flu as a youth and have wondered if it would give any immunity to this current outbreak of Covid-19. I cannot remember a bad siege of the flu for me over the years and I faithfully get a flu shot every October. I am hoping that the suffering, which I vividly remember, will give me some immunity to this new strain of flu. Regardless, I wash hands regularly, use hand sanitizer and stay away from large crowds.

  20. I have had a similar experience to that of Marcia Chambers in that I caught the Asian ‘flu in March 1958 at 14 and have been relatively free of ‘flu ever since.
    Peter Radford,
    Neyland,Pembrokshire

  21. In 1957 living in a remote area of Northern California, I caught the flu also at age eleven. I have heard that us survivors had immunity to subsequent flu outbreaks as the new flu strains had evolved from the three types of virii in the 1957 episode. Having been exposed to numerous types of flu since 1957, I have yet to contract anything. Anyone else had similar experiences?

    1. I also had the Asian flu. I was home for two weeks and my mom sent me back to school and then I had a subsequent relapse. I have never had another flu since then even though I was a school teacher and had three children during the other pandemics. I wonder if we are Immune ? I did read that after the Hong Kong flu they had studies that did say we were immuned

  22. Caught Asian.flu in 1958. Lived in small Iowa town. Have no idea where I contacted someone. Very ill for 4-5 days with high fever nausea etc. very little information was available as well as no panic in America

  23. I remember the Asian Flu well;on Friday March 6,1958 I felt fine,but next morning I was completely knocked out by the flu,the kindly family doctor was called Dr Robertson,who confirmed the symptoms,and my high temperature and prescribed antibiotics.Ans so I lay in bed semi delirious for three or four day.I was in the fourth year in Bishop Gore Grammar School in Swansea and was unable to return to school for almost three weeks.But it was ,I think, that I caught the flu the previous Saturday when I had gone with my mother to the C and A s in Swansea town centre and remember the stuffy,humid atmosphere in there,a most unhealthy experience-that’s where I caught it I’m sure.I remember reading while in bed reading John Lydgate’s poem -“To London once I bent my steps……..For Mary’s sake lhat holy Saint ,Pity the poor that would proceed,But for lack of money I could not speed. I have always associated this poem with the ‘flu ever since.

  24. caught the Asian flue in Nottingham and I well remember it came on me at the Nottingham Goose Fair.
    My mate had to get a taxi to take me home and we had not been there many minutes. I could hardly walk and my mother put me to bed. The next morning my temperature was 104. I was delirious and can only remember the doctor who was a kind man and a specialist in ears nose and throats, saying I had got ‘it’ good and proper! after a few days I started to feel a bit better but that took some doing. I had never felt so bad in my life before or since. No wonder it killed 14000 people here in the British Isles. There was a vaccine which was developed when the death toll started to decline but it had killed 1350 people in 1957
    which was the year I most probably had it.

  25. In 2001 I was the owner of an art business on Phuket island in Thailand when the news of 911 arrived, that was enough to cause concern of a fall in tourist numbers which it did, then about a month later we had the Bali bomb which again affected the tourist industry even more so, then months later we had SARS, similar to what we have now then came another mass infection the name of which I can’t remember as I write and then the worse of all came Asian Tsunami of 26th December 2004 which truly devastated tourism in the region for about 2.5 years. My art business was on the front line of the waves that struck at 9.50 AM wiping out a very successful business, but luckily because it was Sunday morning and we were having a lie in, the waves didn’t reach our house by literally a matter of a few score metres.

    Still we struggled on and there were other lesser world events until now with the coronavirus.
    Will these world events ever stop, my experience is telling me these events are now a regular feature of world events and they aren’t going to stop any time soon. Maybe the Universe is telling us something, but for me, now newly retired, am hoping maybe I can find respite in Spain perhaps later this year before Brexit finally kicks in, but these days I am not holding my breath. I am currently in London and the virus panic is beginning to set in, as I can see and hear in the media.
    Hopefully most of us will get through this latest world event. Good luck all!

    1. 1958 asian flu i got that and i WILL never forget>>>>>>IT WAS THE WORSE THING THAT EVER HAPPEN TO ME.

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