On This Day: Britons get ‘Asian flu’ vaccine after virus kills 3,500 in a year

OCTOBER 1, 1957: The NHS began being vaccinating people against the ‘Asian flu’ on this day in 1957 amid a pandemic would go on to kill 3,550 Britons as it swept around the world.

The virus, which was first discovered in southern China in February, had killed more than a million people by the time it arrived in the UK in July.

And, despite the British-developed vaccine, medics were not able to contain the H2N2 strain, which may have mutated from wild duck-borne influenza, until the next year.

By then, the World Health Organisation estimates that the global death toll was around two million people – including almost 70,000 Americans.

A British Pathé newsreel shows the effect in Japan, where 130,000 people were affected within days of the virus’s arrival in April.

It filmed almost empty classrooms and clinics full of children, who formed the majority of the country’s victim.

In Britain it was most often the elderly who suffered the most.

However, the UK – despite being at greater risk due to its crowded population - was not hit by a second wave of infection later in 1958, unlike the rest of Europe and U.S.


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This was viewed as a triumph for the NHS, which had worked hard to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible and handed out the medicine free of charge.

Initially, only the elderly, young, medical staff and other at-risk groups were eligible, although over time the entire population were encouraged to have the vaccine.

The serum, which was developed at the Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology in west London, was injected twice with a gap of three weeks between jabs.

The Asian Flu outbreak became the third deadliest pandemic of the 20th century.

The 1918-1920 Spanish Flu killed 40million worldwide, while and the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, which claimed three million victims.

Like the 1957 influenza, the Hong Kong Flu, which actually originated across the border in China, is believed to have mutated from avian flu.


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Yet it was far deadlier in Britain after killing 33,000 people.

It would be another four decades until another flu pandemic hit the UK after H1N1 swine flu arrive on our shores from Mexico in 2009.

Despite fears that the virus could be extremely deadly, the strain turned out to be relatively mild, killing only 214 in Britain and 18,000 worldwide.

Unlike 1957, the elderly were the least affected amid claims that their earlier exposure in to the pandemic in their youth enabling them to resist the 2009 strain.