Early Detection of the 1957 Flu Pandemic Helped Slow Its Spread


On April 17, 1957, Maurice Hilleman realized that a pandemic was en route to the United States. That day, The New York Times reported a major flu outbreak in Hong Kong. One detail in particular caught the doctor’s attention: in long queues for clinics, the newspaper said that “the women were carrying glass-eyed children attached to their backs”. He quickly got to work, announcing that a pandemic was coming and pushing to develop a vaccine by the time school started again in the fall.

The first pandemic occurred in southwest China’s Guizhou Province in February 1957. By the time Hilleman learned of it in April, Time reported that about 250,000 Hong Kong residents – 10% of the region’s population – are receiving treatment for the disease.

“We all missed it,” he said. later recalled for The Vaccine Makers Project. “The military missed it, and the World Health Organization missed it.”

READ MORE: How American cities tried to stop the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu

The day after the story was read, he sent a cable to an army general medical laboratory in Zama, Japan, asking staff to investigate what was going on in Hong Kong. A doctor identified a member of the United States Navy who was allegedly infected in Hong Kong and returned the soldier’s saliva to Hilleman in the United States so that he could study the virus.

The 1957 virus moved

Illustrated center Dr. Maurice Hilleman speaks with his research team as they study the flu virus in a laboratory at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Springs, Maryland, 1957.

As chief of respiratory diseases at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., Hilleman “had access to a large amount of serum from people of different ages in the previous years and decades,” says a pediatrician. Paul A. Offit, who is director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is the author of Vaccinated: one man’s quest to defeat the world’s deadliest diseases.