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How the 1957 flu pandemic was stopped early in its path

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  1. skybrian
    From the article: [...] [...] [...] [...]

    From the article:

    On April 17, 1957, Maurice Hilleman realized a pandemic was on its way to the United States. That day, The New York Times reported on a large influenza outbreak in Hong Kong. One detail in particular caught the doctor’s eye: in the long waiting lines for clinics, the paper said “women carried glassy-eyed children tied to their backs.” He quickly got to work, putting out the word that there was a pandemic coming and pushing to develop a vaccine by the time school started again in the fall.


    The day after reading the story, he sent a cable to an Army Medical General Laboratory in Zama, Japan, asking the staff to investigate what was going on in Hong Kong. A medical officer identified a member of the U.S. Navy who’d become infected in Hong Kong, and sent the serviceman’s saliva back to Hilleman in the United States so he could study the virus.


    By comparing the Navy serviceman’s virus against previous flu viruses, “what he found was that there was this dramatic shift,” Offit says. “Both those proteins were completely different from what they had been previously. They hadn’t just drifted, they’d shifted.” This new virus was a completely different strain of the flu.


    With this knowledge, Hilleman put out press releases announcing a new flu pandemic had arrived, and would reach the United States by September 1957. Though he met some resistance, he successfully convinced companies to begin working on flu vaccines to have ready by then. Fertilized chicken eggs would be necessary for this production, so he told the companies to remind farmers not to kill their roosters at the end of hatching season.

    Making a vaccine for a new flu strain is very different from making a vaccine for something completely new like COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that emerged in 2019. Doctors and scientists first developed viable flu vaccines in the 1940s, so they were not starting from scratch when they went to work on the 1957 flu vaccine. Still, Hilleman bypassed regulatory agencies in his efforts to push the vaccine forward because he worried those agencies would slow the process down.


    When the new flu strain hit the United States in September, just as Hilleman had predicted it would, the country was ready with a vaccine. The virus, dubbed the “Asian flu,” killed an estimated 70,000 Americans and one to four million people worldwide, but experts suggest it would have killed many more if not for the vaccine.

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