Far less deadly than the Spanish flu, the Asian flu of 1956-1958 killed about 70,000 Americans. The strain mutated from an earlier H2N2 flu that had originated in Russia and gone pandemic in 1889. With its relatively low death rate and long duration, the Asian Flu perfectly exemplifies how most pandemics don’t threaten the collapse of civilizations, but merely exacerbate the problems already caused by seasonal flu. A girl gargling broth in Sagamihara Hospital, Japan, during the 1957 flu outbreak, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, via
More often than not, it’s the newer diseases, like HIV or Ebola, that grab all the headlines. But those Johnny-come-lately microbes have nothing on one of the most dangerous, and most ancient, viruses that afflicts mankind: influenza.
Medicine has grappled with the deadly influenza virus since the time of Hypocrites, and some historians have identified flu epidemics as far back as ancient Rome. In a regular year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 36,000 Americans die from the seasonal flu, while the virus costs the nation between $71 and $160 billion. That’s ten times the death toll of 9/11 and double the cost of Hurricane Katrina, but it’s far less noticeable, as the virus mainly kills the very old and very young, and the cost is spread out over the entire year in question.
Every few decades, though, the virus mutates into a particularly virulent strain, and spreads across the globe as a pandemic. While only the 1919 flu pandemic managed to create scenes reminiscent of the Decameron, the other pandemics have pried at the chinks in society, negatively impacting the economy and boosting the already high mortality rates for influenza. At the same time, some flu strains that were predicted to cause a pandemic never became as deadly as they were expected to, leading to accusations from the public that the media “hyped” virus’ threat level. With the current swine flu epidemic continuing to expand, PopSci.com takes a look back at notable flu pandemics, as well as some threats that never materialized.
Check out the Gallery: Pandemics That Were and Weren’t!
1580- The First Pandemic
The 1580 outbreak was the earliest pandemic that can definitely be attributed to the flu. It began in Asia, spread to Africa and then hit Europe. According to a 2001 paper in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, the pandemic left entire Spanish cities devoid of people, and killed 8,000 people in Rome, Italy. In fact, it was flu infections in Italy that lead to the word “influenza”, which comes from the Italian “influenza del freddo”, or “influence of the cold”. “Influenza” would not appear in the English language, however, for another 160 years.
1918/1919- The Spanish Flu
The deadliest flu pandemic in history, the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu may have been the deadliest disease in history. In The Great Influenza by John Barry, Barry estimates that the flu killed eight to ten percent of all young adults on the planet, and between 50 and 100 million people in all. And while Gina Kolata, in her book Flu notes that “the flu was expunged from newspapers, magazines, textbooks and society’s collective memory,” Barry makes the case that investigation into the cause of the Spanish Flu, and treating its victims, significantly influenced the development of modern medicine.
1956/1958- The Asian Flu
Far less deadly than the Spanish flu, the Asian flu of 1956-1958 killed about 70,000 Americans. The strain mutated from an earlier H2N2 flu that had originated in Russia and gone pandemic in 1889. With its relatively low death rate and long duration, the Asian Flu perfectly exemplifies how most pandemics don’t threaten the collapse of civilizations, but merely exacerbate the problems already caused by seasonal flu.
1968- The Hong Kong Flu
The 1968 Hong Kong flu was even milder than the Asian Flu from a decade before. This virus only killed 33,800 Americans according to Pandemicflu.gov, less than the seasonal flu killed last year. The Hong Kong Flu evolved from the Asian Flu, leaving anyone who contracted the 1957 virus with significant immunity to the 1968 version.
1976- Swine Flu Panic
In February 1976, a soldier from Fort Dix, New Jersey, died from an H1N1 flu infection. Since H1N1 is the same subspecies of flu that caused the 1918/1919 pandemic, the government moved to head off another pandemic and called for a crash vaccination program. The vaccine unfortunately proved deadlier than the disease. While the Fort Dix soldier remained the only person killed by the flu, 25 people died from complications caused by its vaccine.
1977/1978- The Russian Flu
Like the 1976 swine flu and the Spanish flu, the Russian flu was an H1N1 virus. This outbreak was remarkable for only afflicting the very young. The Russian Flu closely resembled a flu that circulated between 1947 and 1957, leaving almost everyone over 25 immune to its effects. However, as this 1978 Time Magazine article notes, that lack of immunity in people under 25 left institutions with large groups of cohabitating young people, namely military establishments and colleges, particularly vulnerable.
2003- H5N1 Bird Flu
In 2003, the World Health Organization attributed four deaths to a newly identified H5N1 variant. Unlike its more mild H5N1 relatives, this new bird flu killed 60 percent of the humans it infected. That high mortality rate, reminiscent of the Spanish Flu, raised serious concerns in the health care community that H5N1 Asian Avian Flu could turn into the next deadly pandemic. Thankfully, the virus has not lived up to that billing. The virus does not effectively transfer from one human to another, so only people who regularly handle live birds are at risk.