H1N1: Beyond the Hype

For an excellent primer on what we are likely to experience this fall,check out David Brown’s Washington Post piece—on the 1957 flu, in all its eerie familiarity. Then, as in now, we were dealing with a new strain of influenza that was highly infectious but not highly fatal. Then, like now, there was a scramble to invent a vaccine—and it came too late for the peak of the season, which may happen this fall, as well. In both cases, the flu targeted young people—unlike normal seasonal flu.

Spoiler alert: At the end, the story tells us what we all want to know. How many people died? The usual caveats apply—we have much better antibiotics and antiviral drugs to mitigate against the flu today, and the vaccine is likely to be much more effective—once it finally comes out. But this still helps give us some idea of the scale we may be dealing with. Not Armaggedon, but not a normal flu season, either.

“In all, the 1957-58 pandemic was responsible for about 60,000 ‘excess deaths’ in the United States—deaths above what would have been expected in normal times. About 40,000 occurred in the summer and fall of 1957, and 20,000 in the winter of 1958. The toll is the equivalent of 107,000 people in the U.S. population today. On average, ordinary, or seasonal, influenza contributes to the deaths of about 36,000 people in the United States each year.”