Pandemics That Were And Weren’t

After a week of swine flu hysteria, PopSci.com takes a look back at the history of pandemic 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. 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!