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Asian flu 1957: How the region coped with another pandemic

Asian flu 1957: How the region coped with another pandemic

Capital Region has experienced major flu scares in past
Asian flu 1957: How the region coped with another pandemic
The front page of the Oct. 22, 1957 Schenectady Gazette
Photographer: File photo

During the fall of 1957, people all over the United States were nervous over something they couldn't see.

It started in the Soviet Union. On Oct. 4, Soviet scientists launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.

The space machine orbited the planet for three weeks. The batteries died, and Sputnik flew silently for two more months before returning to the atmosphere.

Autumn of '57 was a nervous time for another reason -- something else Americans couldn't see.

It started in East Asia. The Asian flu, an outbreak of influenza first identified in February 1957, caused between one million and two million deaths around the world.

According to research sources, the flu strain first spread throughout China and reached the United States by the middle of the summer of 1957. Among the most seriously affected were young children, the elderly and pregnant women.

By late September, the state Health Department had confirmed 350 cases of Asian flu in New York.

October began, and the flu became a major news item: The Schenectady Gazette carried local and state stories about the illness nearly every day -- along with stories about the growing Cold War with the Soviet Union and occasional pieces about another phenomenon of the late 1950s, unidentified flying objects.

Here are some excerpts and summaries from newspapers published nearly 63 years ago.

* October 2: The flu spreads rapidly throughout the state. Five thousand people have reported flu-like symptoms, according to the state Health Department. In New York City, the mayor's office reports that nearly 11,000 people have visited 15 hospitals over a five-day period, complaining of flu.

Dr. Roscoe Kandle, acting New York City health commissioner, says the epidemic has been behaving as anticipated. "It is mild, the fever lasting about 48 hours," he said. "Many who have been stricken have already recovered."

* October 7: The flu tears through upstate New York. About 60 schools close, leaving 32,000 students idle. "It was the heaviest run of flu-like illness reported in one day since July, when the state Health Department began keeping a close watch for Asian flu," reads a story filed by the Associated Press.

Among the schools closed are Amsterdam's 16 public and parochial schools.

In a separate story, Schenectady County health officials say Asian flu has not hit the area. 
Dr. Ralph Isabella, president of the Schenectady County Medical Society, looks ahead.

"While industry will no doubt experience increases in absenteeism this fall or winter if the expected ... epidemic materializes, it should not get panicky and rush into a program of mass inoculation for its employees until essential priority groups in the community have been inoculated," he says.

The priority group -- recommended by the U.S. Health service -- includes doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, caregivers, police officers, firefighters, communications workers and transportation personnel.

* October 9: Dr. James E. Allen Jr., the state's education commissioner,  says he is concerned over high absenteeism in schools throughout New York.

More than 130 schools have closed during the week, with students recovering from flu-like illness. Many of the cases are believed to be Asian flu.

* October 10: National public health officials say 1,077,000 cases of Asian flu have been reported in the U.S. since early June.

"For the week ended Oct. 4, the reports of influenza and influenza-like diseases followed the pattern of the previous three or four weeks, namely an increase in cases in many areas," reads a report issued by the health personnel.

* October 11: Tests conducted at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center have cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine for Asian flu. Locally, an increase in flu cases postpones the Nott Terrace-Newburgh football game at Schenectady Stadium.

* October 12: The Scotia-Draper football game is called off. "Although the Scotia squad is intact, the Rotterdam 35-man squad was depleted to 19 at yesterday's practice," writes Schenectady Gazette sportswriter Marv Cermak. "It was reported that about 200 of the school's 600 enrollment was absent from Thursday classes."

In the wake of the two football cancellations, Dr. Malcolm A. Bouton -- the city's health commissioner -- says he would not advise closing schools or stopping any additional athletic contests or other public assemblies as a preventative measure.

The commissioner adds there is no indication that closing schools or halting meetings would have any effect on the spread of the flu.

* October 14: A total of 3,500 students are absent from area schools. In Schenectady, 2,000 of the estimated 13,000 enrolled students stay home. Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace high schools are the hardest hit.

The Schenectady schools remain open.

* October 15: More and more high school football players are on the sick list. City schools remain open. Mohonasen schools close.

Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announce they will not play their weekend football game. Flu has hit RPI; 100 students are in the college infirmary.

Managers at the General Electric Co. and ALCO Products say there has not been an increase in the number of absent workers. Some GE employees have received Asian flu inoculations.

* October 16: A name has become part of the narrative: Paul C. Himmelman, 19, of Ossining, a student at Colgate University, dies of flu-like illness.

Dr. John Rathbone, the university's physician, says there has been widespread illness at the school but no determination whether Asian flu was responsible.

Himmelman becomes the first upstate flu victim.

In Schenectady County, the Draper-Johnstown and Mont Pleasant-Kingston football games are crossed off the schedule. One hundred students are out of of Johnstown's 400-strong enrollment.

Mariaville Central School closes to give pupils what the Gazette describes as "the rest cure." Schenectady schools remain open, and officials have no plans to close.

* October 17: Thirteen deaths across the state have been attributed to Asian flu and other respiratory illnesses.

Visitors can no longer enter Schenectady's three hospitals -- Ellis, St. Clare's and City -- as 20,000 people have been treated locally for flu symptoms.

City schools remain open. Dr. Bouton, the health commissioner, hints that more people are going to get sick.

Bouton tells the Gazette that the manner in which the "relatively mild sickness" has traveled through the community would indicate it is on a rapidly rising curve upward. The peak period, Bouton believes, has not been reached.

* October 18: Schalmont schools close, bringing the total area district shutdown number to six.

* October 19: The Gazette's Marv Cermak, describing the health crisis as a "devastating flu invasion," also describes a bleak weekend scene for fans of high school sports.

"For the first time in many years," Cermak writes in the morning newspaper, "local athletic enthusiasts are without a schoolboy home attraction, on what should be a busy mid-season weekend. "The only gridiron contests of local interest today will be the Nott Terrace at Glens Falls and Scotia at Mechanicville tests."

* October 20: According to a front-page story filed by United Press, 203 people in the United States have died from Asian flu or its side effects since the virus arrived in the U.S. during the summer.

Four states have accounted for 132 of the deaths. New York, with 54 deaths, has the most.

* October 22: The flu surges in Schenectady County; only three of the seven school districts remain in operation. Classes are in session in Schenectady, Mariaville and Draper; Scotia-Glenville, Niskayuna, Mohonasen and Schalmont are all closed.

Scotia, St. Joseph's and St. Luke's close for the remainder of the week.

General Electric workers are also staying home. The company reports 1,800 employees absent, 6 percent of the workforce. About 12,000 Asian flu shots have been administered at the main plant.

* October 24: Schenectady County Sheriff Harold Calkins has a problem: He believes there has been bootlegging and improper distribution of the flu vaccine.

A Gazette story quotes a letter Calkins wrote to the county Board of Supervisors on October 11. Calkins believes bootlegging and improper distribution became "very obvious" when told there were no vaccines available for the sheriff's office.

"This has been of real concern to me," Calkins says, "because I have been worried as to how I might cope with the situation in the event that many of my deputies become stricken with the flu."

Twenty-one deputies receive inoculations on October 23, the day the story was written.

* October 28: All seven school districts in Schenectady County are open. There is still uncertainty.

"Yesterday's wet, cold weather gave little cheer to those suffering from colds and flu-like illnesses," read a Gazette story.

By November, there is still flu in the area. A 14-month-old Amsterdam boy dies of flu-like symptoms at Amsterdam City Hospital. By November 3, a United Press survey finds that 506 people have died since the summer.

Things begin to normalize. On Tuesday, November 5, Nott Terrace and Mont Pleasant play their 25th annual Election Day football game. About 6,000 people watch the game at Union College's Alexander Field and see Terrace pull off the 7-3 upset.

Contact Gazette staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

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