COVID-19 Day 27: The Forgotten Pandemics

This billboard advertisement appeared in Des Moines in 1968.Credit...Bettmann, via Getty Images

This billboard advertisement appeared in Des Moines in 1968.Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

The virus arose in China. Quietly infecting dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, before jumping across borders on airplanes to the rest of the world. As bodies filled hospitals with a mystery contagion, the news media only started to sound alarm after the first cases were identified in Europe and America. In a matter of months, millions would be dead. But this wasn’t COVID-19.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana

While 2019-nCoV is a new virus, no truer words describe our current situation. Many have compared COVID-19 to  SARS, MERS, AIDs, and 1918 Spanish Flu in the hopes of gleaning insights to fighting this pandemic. But nobody seems to remember the 1957 Asian Flu and 1968 Hong Kong Flu.

It is strange that we have largely forgotten the 1957 and 1968 pandemics, which effected Asia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. In the United States alone, almost 120,000 died from the 1957 flu, with an estimated 2 million dead worldwide. A novel mutation of the 1957 strain ignited a new pandemic in 1968 causing an estimated 1-4 million deaths
These were the first pandemics of the modern era, fought using the newest advances in medicine and technology, such as the discovery of DNA in 1950. I was born in the winter of 1968 during the height of the flu season in the US. Growing up, I vaguely remember hearing reference to the “Hong Kong Flu” on TV, but we never covered these pandemics in school. If not for a mention by mathematician Eric Weinstein in an interview with Joe Rogan, I would not have been remembered them.

Why did we forget them? Perhaps like today, “more important” news dominated the headlines. Earlier this year the news cycle was filled with headlines about the Trump Impeachment, the Democratic Debates, and celebrity deaths. During the 1968–1969 flu season, the Vietnam War, Woodstock the Presidential Election, and the Moon Landing dominated the headlines. We had no social media to share and amplify trending topics. We had no centralized computer database where the nation’s causes of death were tabulated in real-time. We didn’t even know the total death count until months after the pandemic was over.

Though largely forgotten, we did learn key lessons that serve us to this day, such as the need for proactive vaccine development, and the effective deployment of vaccination programs. But the lessons we forgot, such as the need for frequent hand-washing, have helped keep the flu alive season after season. The pandemic came in waves as different populations became infected and individuals traveled. The second wave of the pandemic killed far more people because communities let their guard down.

I can only hope that like a vaccine booster shot, our current pandemic boosts our vigilance for the future.


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