The Asian flu arrives in Canada
For centuries it has silently stalked us, killing tens of millions of people and evading all the best efforts at a permanent cure. It is influenza, a potentially lethal bug whose unique ability to reinvent itself in deadlier forms has prompted researchers to dub it the "last great virus" facing humanity. CBC Archives explores the deadly history of influenza and looks at what's being done to avoid a new global pandemic.
The Asian flu (also known as the oriental flu) is believed to have originated in northern China in February 1957. It hit Canada in the fall of that year, forcing the closure of schools, public gathering places and eventually killed an estimated 2,000 people. By the time it ran its course in the spring of 1958, this strain had claimed an estimated two million lives worldwide, making it the second most fatal flu pandemic in history.
• The arrival of the new strain dominated the front page of many papers, including the Toronto Daily Star which on Sept. 20 ran a story under the headline: "Flu In Ontario Is Asian - Ottawa"
• The Star reported that the federal Minister of Health and Welfare, J. Waldo Monteith, had confirmed that the Asian flu had been identified in thousands of individuals in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C., and would likely soon spread to other provinces.
• During the first week of the outbreak thousands were reportedly confined to their beds, and four people were believed to have died from it; an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old in northern Ontario, an elderly man from Sault Ste. Marie and a man in Prince Rupert, B.C.
• Sudbury, Ont. suffered a particularly bad outbreak, with about 6,000 of its 50,000 residents infected. An article from the Sept. 17, 1957 edition of the Toronto Daily Star said, "classrooms are being depleted of students and teachers . [and] are half empty at the Nickel District Collegiate."
• In Capreol, just north of Sudbury, half the population was stricken with the virus, with most schools and businesses closed for weeks.
• The pandemic hit hardest in India and Asia where most of the two million deaths took place. Scientists have speculated that the fatalities were higher because of the population density and proximity of humans to pigs and birds.
• While deadly, both the 1957 pandemic and the 1968 Honk Kong flu claimed just a fraction of the 40 million killed by the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919. Several explanations for this have been offered, including a theory by biologist Paul M. Ewald.
• In his 1994 book Evolution and Infectious Diseases, Ewald argued that normally the impact of stronger pandemic strains of the flu tend to be mitigated by the fact that people who get infected often stay home, and are isolated in their bedrooms.
• Less fatal strains, such as the ones responsible for the annual epidemics, have more chance to spread since infected people are still able to go to work or ride on public transportation, therefore circulating the bug.
• In 1918, soldiers infected with less serious flu strains typically stayed with their units. Those with the far more lethal Spanish flu though had to be shipped from the field, usually by crowded trucks or trains, en route to hospitals where the virus had far more opportunity to spread.
• In October 2004, a U.S. company mistakenly mailed out live samples of the Asian influenza virus to some 5,000 labs in 18 countries as part of a routine testing program. The College of American Pathologists regularly includes unlabelled virus samples in test kits that are used by labs as part of their quality control checks.
• The kits were supposed to include a less virulent A strain of influenza, but somehow the deadly strain responsible for the 1957-1958 pandemic was chosen instead.
• The Asian flu strain that was mistakenly mailed out hasn't infected humans since 1968 and has been dropped from vaccine shots since then. That means that anyone born after 1968 would have no immunity to the potentially fatal bug.
• Luckily, in March 2005 employees at Winnipeg's National Microbiology Laboratory caught the error and alerted the World Health Organization. WHO officials eventually tracked down all samples of the virus and ordered them to be destroyed, averting an accidental pandemic.
• The strain responsible for the Asian flu outbreak later mutated into a new virus, which was responsible for the Hong Kong flu of 1968 and 1969. To learn more about the Hong Kong flu pandemic, go to our additional clip Bracing for the Hong Kong flu.
Broadcast Date: Sept. 29, 1957
Guest(s): W.G. Brown, Roy Steckel
Interviewer: Joe Gibson
Reporter: Charles Lynch, Arthur Blakeley
Last updated: September 24, 2013
Page consulted on December 6, 2013
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