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The flu virus that was making the rounds 50 years ago

A Toronto virologist explained the different types of flu viruses on CBC-TV’s Take 30 in 1970.

Global 'pan-epidemic' that started in Asia in 1968 was being felt in North America in 1970

"Even if you get the virus one year, your immunity is only going to be good for two or three years," a virologist explains in 1970. 2:10

A virus that had been travelling across the globe for over a year wasn't a cause for much concern by Canadian health authorities in January 1970.

Dr. Peter Middleton, a virologist with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said a colleague in Hamilton had isolated "what we call the A2 Hong Kong '68 strain." 

"We had this virus in Toronto in December of '68 and January of '69, and then it departed these shores," Middleton told the CBC's Adrienne Clarkson on the CBC-TV program Take 30.

According to the Globe and Mail, which called it Hong Kong A2, the virus was named for the place where scientists had first isolated it in July of 1968.

Take 30 co-host Adrienne Clarkson wanted to know why a virus that had swept the globe had been so hard to control. (Take 30/CBC Archives)

But, Middleton continued, A2 had then travelled "to the southern hemisphere" for winter in that part of the world, and was now back in North America.

"Why can't it be controlled?" asked Clarkson.

It all came down to immunity.

"New people are born all the time into this world of ours," said the doctor. "And they're not immune."

Besides, any immunity people gained was only good for "two or three years." 

'Pan-epidemics'

Virologist Dr. Peter Middleton explains the different types of flu viruses on CBC-TV's Take 30. 2:03

Earlier in the interview, Middleton had explained the nature of viruses in general.

"Are there really different kinds of flu viruses?" asked Clarkson as she and her guest sat beneath an illustration of cartoonish alien-type creatures labelled A1, A2 and A3.

"This is a very fine piece of artistry," said Middleton, gesturing at the creatures Clarkson had described as "malevolent". 

"There are three basic types of influenza viruses," Middleton said.

He went on to describe the three types, which doctors tagged A, B or C. 

"Now, C is a very mild sort of fellow," he said. "He produces a sort of a common cold."

Things got more serious with the B strains.

"Influenza B causes an epidemic, not usually a worldwide one," said Middleton.

But the A2 strain then going around was something more serious yet.

"Now, the A's … are associated with substantial epidemics," he said. "These affect, usually, the whole world and they're known as 'pan-epidemics.'"

According to the Globe and Mail in a report from 11 days before this interview, the Hong Kong A2 virus had killed about 2,000 people in Papua New Guinea and 400 in Britain in the previous two months.

By Jan. 17, 1970, the number of deaths in the previous four weeks in Britain had reached 7,000, according to another, later report in the Globe and Mail.

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