‘I survived the Asian flu pandemic and these are my fears for coronavirus’

Mar 26, 2020
People fearing they had contracted Asian flu wait to be seen at a health clinic in the US. Source: Bettmann/Getty Images

With all the news about coronavirus at the moment, I was reminded of the pandemic I found myself in the midst of in 1958. I was in San Francisco, United States and I was sick with the Asian flu.

In February 1957, a new influenza A (H2N2) virus emerged in East Asia, triggering a pandemic (‘Asian flu’). This H2N2 virus was comprised of three different genes from an H2N2 virus that originated from an avian influenza A virus, including the H2 hemagglutinin and the N2 neuraminidase genes.

It was first reported in Singapore in February 1957, Hong Kong in April 1957, and in coastal cities in the US in summer 1957. The estimated number of deaths was 1.1 million worldwide and almost 70,000 in the US.

My mother and I both had this Asian flu and it totally immobilised us for more than a week. We were quarantined in our room at the Franciscan Hotel without food. There was no restaurant in the hotel and no staff to go out and get food, so we could only drink water and chew gum.

We were so unwell that we would have to walk from our beds holding onto the wall to get into the bathroom. It was the scariest thing I had experienced as an eight-year-old girl.

My mother had already been sick in the 1918 flu epidemic here in New Zealand, where millions died. I always wondered if she had immunity from that pandemic, but as she got so sick in San Francisco I doubted that very much.

The New Zealand Consulate General came to visit us. He didn’t think to bring any food, but it was nice that he came. His own family had symptoms as well so he only stood in the doorway and spoke quickly just to check on us. There were quite a few New Zealanders who got sick and he endeavoured to find them all and check on them.

Of course, back then there wasn’t the instant social media or internet so it was only reported in the newspapers in San Francisco. I don’t recall much being written about it other than articles advising people to stay away from work if they were unwell. That was about the gist of it.

With this new coronavirus we are getting updates all the time and I have been watching the news (for the first time in years, I might add). It’s upmost in my mind that this pandemic is just starting and I fear it will most certainly get worse before it gets better.

At home, our government is doing its level best to keep the virus under control. We have the most stringent things in place, far more than most overseas countries, which I think has been a very brave move.

I see caregivers twice a day every day of the week as I’m older and infirmed, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the virus and how it can travel through the air, stay on surfaces for over 12 hours and close contact is not recommended. My workers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday assist me with my showers — they have always used gloves but I don’t know what the company will do to assist their workers in keeping the virus under control.

The Auckland District Health Board funds my workers (Lifewise Group) and I live at home alone and very rarely go out. I hope the risks are less for me than for others. The women who come here help men and women aged in their 100s and beyond in nursing homes, as well as their own homes, often living alone and not knowing how to internet shop. It’s these people I worry about as they are in an older age group with no community facilities to back them up.

I’m not worried about food though. A friend of mine sent me a couple of hundred dollars of essentials three weeks ago including dog food (for my two toy poodles), tins of food, tissues, toilet paper, bleach, dishwashing liquid and a whole lot more items. I’ve got them all in their bags under my dining room table and if I use an item she recommended that I purchase and replace it from my normal internet shopping.

This now seems like a very good idea though at the time I thought it a little premature. I’m grateful to have such a good friend. I would not have had the money to spend on these items as I’m on the pension and have to adhere to such a strict budget.

I’m sure there are many of you facing a similar dilemma. Coronavirus will be around for the next few months, even possibly a year! That is certainly a stressful thought. Follow the health advice being distributed; wash your hands as often as possible and endeavour to not come in close contact with strangers or those who have travelled.

Stay safe!

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