How Many People Died From the Hong Kong Flu?

March 20, 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to rethink their normal routines. Schools have closed, and working from home is now a commonplace practice. People have canceled trips to their favorite restaurants, bars and movies. Weddings, funerals and church services have been canceled, and even professional sports are on hold. And while the number of deaths from this pandemic may have slowed down, the disruption is real.

When the Hong Kong flu emerged in July 1968, it spread quickly across Southeast Asia. Within a few months it reached India, the Philippines and northern Australia. By December it was spreading in the United States, where it was carried to California by troops returning from Vietnam War service. It soon reached Japan, Africa and Central and South America.

Worldwide deaths from this virus peaked a year later, in 1969 and 1970. This was because by the time this flu hit, vaccines were already in short supply. The H3N2 strain had mutated to become more deadly, and the hemagglutinin proteins needed for vaccine production were not available.

The hemagglutinin proteins are found on the surface of the influenza virus and help it infect a human host. These proteins were discovered in 1968, and hemagglutinin from this pandemic flu was incorporated into the first monovalent influenza vaccine produced in 1970. The National Institutes of Health provided the viral hemagglutinin to vaccine manufacturers, which were asked to test it for its ability to produce a vaccine. This vaccine was given to astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders before their historic flight to the Moon. It was the first human vaccine made using a synthetic hemagglutinin, which is more stable than natural hemagglutinin and less likely to trigger an immune response.

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