Living Through the 1957 Flu Pandemic

Posted on March 12, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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In 1957, news traveled across the United States slowly and sometimes imprecisely.

There were no twenty-four hour CNN’s and no social media.

Television news was in its larva stage: the three major networks had 15 minute daily national news broadcasts, nothing more. Anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC, Douglas Edwards at CBS, and John Daly at ABC were pioneers who learned on the job. Brinkley later said that since television cameras did not come with instruction manuals, broadcasters had to figure out how to effectively use them by trial and error, often error. More than 25 percent of American homes did not contain a television set.

The business of news presentation was left primarily to the country’s 1,800 daily papers.

Radio was also a major source for current events: top 40 formats had not yet taken over, and as difficult as it is to believe, Arthur Godfrey was more famous than Elvis Presley. Oversized Philco’s surrounded by Chrome and Formica were common living room features.

President Eisenhower’s federal highway push wasn’t passed into law until 1956, so outside of large cities, much of the country was only minimally connected. In some cases, isolated.

In the summer and fall of ’57, news of a national killer on the loose shattered the general tranquility. Anyone living at that time didn’t need to read a newspaper, listen to a radio, or turn on a television to find out that they were in harm’s way. The killer was in school classrooms, Boy Scout jamborees, homes and offices — a relative or a neighbor or a friend of a friend might be dealing directly with it.

That killer was influenza, “the flu,” and suddenly, it was everywhere. More than half the counties in the country were experiencing epidemics by October of 1957.

The flu swept the country in waves — once schools opened, the highest “attack rates” were focused on young people, first in high schools, then elementary schools. When the virus was at its peak, 60 percent of the country’s students had some form of it.

In retrospect, the lack of mass media exacerbated the problem. Network television did some informative specials, but many people remained in the dark about specifics of the disease.

Fear, which was a major part of the contagion at the time, only increased because facts were hard to come by.

In 1957, of course, the medical community did not have all the facts that they have today. Preventative steps like social distancing, appropriate coughing etiquette, and frequent handwashing were not taken on a widespread basis. Treatment procedures were not uniform either — the disease hit 25 percent of the population of the country and protocols varied considerably. Physicians predominately recommended home care, a wise move that kept hospitals from being swamped with cases that ranged from mild to deadly.

Remember, this was a different country in the 1950’s — personal hygiene and home living conditions were not compatible with today’s situation. Purell wasn’t on the market, daily bathing wasn’t considered necessary, houses were still being heated by coal and smoking was omnipresent. Attitudes about healthcare were equally skewed: hot mustard foot baths were a popular remedy for the flu.

Probably the most fortunate dynamic in the 1957 pandemic was the speed with which a vaccine was developed: it only took three months to be cleared by the government.

Casualty numbers for the outbreak are all over the board. It is postulated that 1 million to 4 million worldwide lost their lives; in the United States, estimates range from 70,000 to 116,000.

It’s commonly accepted today that Air Raid Drills which were conducted in schools in the 1950’s forever traumatized baby boomers — those who lived through the influenza pandemic of 1957-1958 knew a different, less abstract trauma. Nikita Khrushchev’s bombs were hypothetical. The flu could, in very short order, write real obituaries. It was a scary time.


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