Similarities Between Two Pandemics Can Aid in Preparedness and Response

Singapore Influenza Ward 1957
Singapore Influenza Ward 1957

As the U.S. prepares for a resurgence of H1N1 influenza this fall, much can be learned from looking at a previous pandemic that had similar patterns. In an article published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, researchers at the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) examined historical documents, published material, and newspaper coverage related to the 1957-58 influenza pandemic to compare the progress and severity of that outbreak with the current one.

1957 There Was Minimal Disruption

The simple, practical actions taken in 1957 allowed the country to continue functioning with minimal disruption. Lead author Dr. D. A. Henderson had major responsibility for establishing the CDC influenza surveillance program during the early stages of the 1957 flu; data and analysis of events presented are based on his direct experiences as well as copies of surveillance reports that were published in 1957-58.  “There is need for an understanding in national policy circles of the options for dealing with a pandemic, and time is short if states and local communities are going to be prepared,” said Henderson.

25% Of The Population Was Sick In Three Months

During the 1957 pandemic, 25% of the U.S. population became ill, and excess mortality due to pneumonia and influenza occurred. It was a rapidly spreading disease, and it quickly became apparent to U.S. health officials that efforts to stop or slow its spread were futile.

No Special Measures

No efforts were made to quarantine individuals or groups, and a deliberate decision was made not to cancel or postpone large meetings such as conferences, church gatherings, or athletic events. Health officials emphasized providing medical care to those who were sick and keeping community and health services functioning. School absenteeism was high, but schools were not closed unless the number of students or teachers fell low enough to warrant closure.

Vaccine Was Too Late

In 1957 The Vaccine Was Too Late To Help Most - Dr. Joseph Ballinger Giving Marjorie Hill, A Nurse At Montefiore Hospital In New York, The First Asian Flu Vaccine Shot To Be Administered In New York City.
In 1957 the vaccine was too late to help most - Dr. Joseph Ballinger giving Marjorie Hill, a nurse at Montefiore Hospital in New York, the first Asian flu vaccine shot to be administered in New York City.

Special efforts were made to speed the production of vaccine, but the quantities that were produced were too late to substantially affect the impact of the epidemic. The spread of the disease was so rapid that within 3 months it had swept across the country and had largely disappeared. Although it is impossible to predict the course that H1N1 will take, planning for it can be informed by the experiences of the recent past.

Is 2009 A Different Story?

One of the big differences between 1957 and today is the overall state of the health care system and the loss of large numbers of available beds. That coupled with the serious cutbacks in Public Health, we are a different world.  No doubt about it though, this is the most watched and documented pandemic every to occur.

The article, “Public Health and Medical Responses to the 1957-58 Influenza Pandemic,” was published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal, is published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.