1957-58 flu pandemic can provide clues to planning for current H1N1
17 August 2009
As the world prepares for a resurgence of H1N1 influenza with the
approach of the northern winter, 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Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) examine historical documents, published
material, and newspaper coverage related to the 1957-58 influenza
pandemic in the US to compare the progress and severity of that outbreak
with the current one. The simple, practical actions taken in 1957
allowed the country to continue functioning with minimal disruption.
Lead author Dr DA 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.
During the 1957 pandemic, 25% of the US population became ill, and
excess mortality due to pneumonia and influenza occurred. It was a
rapidly spreading disease, and it quickly became apparent to US health
officials that efforts to stop or slow its spread were futile.
Thus, 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.
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
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.
The article, "Public Health and Medical Responses to the 1957-58
Influenza Pandemic," was published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism
ahead of print at:
Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and
Science, is a quarterly peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann
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