10 of the Deadliest Global Pandemics of All Time

Asian flu in Sweden (1957), Wikimedia Commons.

The Asian Flu Pandemic (1956-1958)

Estimated deaths: 2 million

By the mid-1950s, health organizations globally felt that they were beginning to get a handle on at least better monitoring and warning of disease outbreaks. Vaccinations had been developed to address previous strains of the flu. Things were quiet near the beginning of 1957. However, on April 17, 1957, a Times newspaper article reported that ‘an influenza epidemic has affected thousands of Hong Kong residents.’ This would be the start of the second global flu pandemic of the 20th century. By mid-May there were 100,000 reported cases of flu in Taiwan and over a million cases in India by the end of June. That same month cases began to appear in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Symptoms for this version of the flu were similar to previous flu outbreaks: fever, body aches, chills, cough, weakness, and loss of appetite. Vaccines would not be available to address this version of the flu until many months later. Before any vaccines could be made though, a second and deadlier, wave of the flu struck around the end of 1957. By then, some 3,550 deaths were reported in the United Kingdom. As the second wave spread, more victims would succumb. At the start of 1958, it was reported that ‘not less than 9 million people in Great Britain had … Asian influenza.’ Near the end of March 1958, it was estimated that 69,800 people had died from the flu in the United States.

When all was said and done, an estimated 2 million people worldwide were confirmed or suspected victims of this strain of flu. However, the response to this flu was far different than in 1918. By this era, medical research was better prepared to study and react to this type of outbreak. A U.S. researcher named Maurice Hilleman of the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research on Infectious Diseases, heard of reports of this strain of flu and soon jumped into action. His team found a sample of the virus from a U.S. serviceman and began to study it. Based on their research and Hilleman’s advocacy, many drug manufacturers worked to produce a vaccine within months of the beginning of the outbreak. Although thousands perished, some health officials believed the death toll in the U.S. could have been as high as 1 million if it were not for Hilleman’s work.