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50 years ago, the Hong Kong flu killed a million people

The current Covid-19 epidemic has already caused more than 200,000 deaths and no one knows when it will stop. The point is, you don't have to go far to find a global pandemic of similar severity. Indeed, between 1968 and 1970, the Hong Kong flu killed one million people.

An unknown pandemic

Covid-19 is the first global pandemic of the 21st century . An overwhelming majority of countries are now affected and half the population is in lockdown or has to follow social distancing rules. During the last century, between 1918 and 1919, the Spanish flu killed between 40 and 50 million people. The Asian flu (1957) caused between one and 4 million deaths.

However, the closest global pandemic to us is the Hong Kong flu, which caused one million deaths between 1968 and 1970 . This is a relatively unknown pandemic that has nevertheless caused more than 30,000 deaths in France! An article published in Liberation in 2005 tells this recent story that ultimately few remember.

One ​​million deaths

The Hong Kong flu virus (H3N2) is an evolution of the Asian flu virus (H2N2). This would have appeared, according to the sources, in Central Asia or China around February 1968. From July 1968, the virus affected Singapore but especially very violently Hong Kong where 500,000 people were infected in just one month! Then the virus quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia, India, Australia and Japan.

The winter of 1968-1969 marked the arrival of H3N2 in the northern hemisphere. US sailors returning from Vietnam will bring evil with them. In just three months, the United States has 50,000 dead. In the fall of 1969, Europe was affected and France experienced a peak of 6,000 deaths in January 1969 for a final death toll of 31,226 . Between December 1969 and January 1970, a second wave will claim even more victims.

An underrated pandemic

Apart from the severity of the pandemic, the Hong Kong flu compares to Covid-19 for its understatement. Indeed, politicians and the media paid little attention to it at the time. The fault in particular with the context of the Cold War between the West and the East which was combined with the optimism of the Glorious Thirty (1945-1973). Let's also mention the Vietnam War (1955-1975) led by the United States.

In France, we are managing after May 68 and the dynamic of progress leaves little room for concern. In July 1968, the Institut Pasteur itself estimated that there was no real epidemic in France , nor in Europe. However, at the time, schools had been closed, as had some shops. There were also significant transport disruptions. Despite these facts and the sharp increase in the number of deaths, the press will never raise the Hong Kong flu to the headlines. This is the proof of a quite disconcerting lightness regarding the treatment of the pandemic in the media.

Finally, let's talk about the search for a vaccine. In September 1968, the Institut Pasteur isolated the viral strain responsible for the epidemic. However, no effective flu vaccine will be produced . Indeed at the time, vaccinating the population en masse was not a very widespread practice.