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Government Response Changed Radically from 1957-58 Pandemic

The responses to Covid-19 and the “Asian flu” of 1957-58 (H2N2) differed markedly even though the two pandemics presented slightly different challenges.

School-age children and young adults were the primary targets of the Asian flu, a disease that left people over the age of 65 largely in peace.  Today’s coronavirus shows the opposite trend, mostly sparing school-children while disproportionately attacking the elderly. Hospitalizations were rare under H2N2, whereas many hospitals today are struggling to manage their COVID-19  caseload. Vaccines had little effect on suppressing the Asian flu but are considered the best hope of stemming the spread of the more virulent COVID-19 until herd immunity is achieved. (see Public Health Agencies Forgot Lessons of 1958-58 Pandemic ).

Normal economic activity continued during the 1957-58 outbreak, whereas many governors and local officials imposed strict and lengthy lockdowns during COVID-19, leading to soaring unemployment in the spring of 2020.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) played a key role in determining policy during the Asian flu epidemic. However, during COVID-19, that role was played by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Food and Drug Administration, and state governors.

Finally, the U.S. death toll from the Asian flu is estimated at 116,000 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says over 430,000 have died thus far from COVID-19 in the United States, a figure that includes deaths from pneumonia and influenza. Today, the U.S. population is almost twice what it was in 1957-58.

“It is important to look to history to put current events into perspective,” Eric Toner, M.D., senior scholar and senior scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the co-authors of the 2009 study told Health Care News. “The 1957 influenza pandemic, which has been considered the second-worst in modern history, killed 62,000 Americans. It pales in comparison with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 431,000 and counting.”

The CDC has given contradictory estimates on the numbers of deaths from the Asian Flu. One estimate puts the mortality rate at 116,000 while another states it at 70,000.


Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., (bcohen@nationalcenter.org) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.


Bonner R Cohen
Bonner R Cohen
Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a position he has held since 2002.


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