“This is where air travel turns up a new kind of health problem,” the article noted. “The flu virus requires about three days to produce sickness. A newly infected person can board a plane in the Pacific area and go halfway around the world before he shows symptoms of the disease. Meanwhile he can exhale the bug in the presence of fellow travelers and so propagate the chain of infection.”
The H2N2 virus would later be traced back to mainland China, with a stop in Singapore.
As public health officials around the world girded for the epidemic, Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek took to his bed with a high fever. (He would survive and go on to build Brasilia.) The American liner the President Cleveland arrived in San Francisco from Japan with 96 percent of its passengers and crew either ill or convalescent.
And the U.S. president? That was Dwight Eisenhower. We’ll get to him.
Seasonal flu was not uncommon, but this iteration was more severe than previous versions, though not as deadly as the Spanish flu that had killed 50 million 40 years earlier. (The CDC estimates the eventual death toll from the 1957-1958 pandemic was 1.1 million worldwide, including 116,000 in the United States.)
As the summer of 1957 wore on, newspapers ticked off the countries reporting cases: Syria, Iraq, Romania …
In August, U.S. Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney warned that autumn would bring a “sweeping and widespread” outbreak in America. “There will not be enough time, of course, to produce and administer sufficient vaccine to immunize a majority of the population before the influenza season,” Burney declared.
But the fact that there was a vaccine was a reason for hope. U.S. drug companies agreed to turn out eight million doses by mid-September, with another 50 million by Feb. 1.
In those paranoid, Cold War times, two questions were on some people’s minds. The surgeon general insisted the new flu mutation had not been caused by nuclear testing in the Pacific. Asked if Communists had planted the germs, Burney said, “No. I don’t believe that is a possibility. We have epidemics occasionally and have had them in the past.”
Meanwhile, it was reported that Asian flu had hit U.S. air bases in Britain, hospitalizing 500 airmen.
A newspaper humorist quipped: “Fever is the second part of Asian flu. The first part is worse. That’s the shivers you get from all the advance warnings.”
Dwight Eisenhower repeatedly declined the opportunity to get vaccinated, insisting he be treated like a regular person and not get special treatment. An exasperated Public Health Service put out a news release recommending that older people with chronic diseases like heart trouble should be among the first inoculated. A White House source admitted the release was aimed at one person: Ike.
On Aug. 26, the president finally got his jab.
A week later, the first 1,500 flu shots arrived in the District. They were administered to firefighters, police officers and the staff of D.C. General Hospital. A week after that, the Naval Academy football team got their shots. (“We can’t afford to lose a game this season,” said the director of athletics.)
Italy was hit hard. In Milan, Maria Callas had the flu. Ingrid Bergman was ill in her Rome apartment. Noted tenor Beniamino Gigli, 67, died two days after showing Asian flu symptoms, passing away so quickly that he was unable to receive last rites from a priest.
In Washington, dozens of residents of Junior Village, a juvenile detention facility at Blue Plains, tested positive for flu. (A new test involved culturing throat washes on monkey kidney tissue and waiting several days for the results.)
Fairfax County closed 32 public schools to prevent spread of the disease. D.C. General restricted visitors to patients’ immediate families but said even they should think of just calling or sending letters.
Financial columnist Sylvia Porter warned retailers to expect a poor Christmas season. Families would be spending more money on medical bills and less on gifts.
The Asian flu tapered off in 1958, though there was the expected blip of cases that fall.
The Evening Star’s Charles E. Brooks wrote: “The epidemic made history in more than one way. It was the first time the medical world had ever made advance preparations before an epidemic struck.”
The first, but not the last.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.