In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I would remind us of the Hong Kong Flu pandemic that hit the USA after the Summer of Love of 1967. Or, maybe not. Our 1960s lifestyle may have clouded our memories.

Even though I was a sophomore in college by the time the Hong Kong Flu hit, I have no memory of the pandemic, except the name. With this COVID-19, I am confident I will remember it for the rest of my life.

The spread of the pandemic

As is the case with many of the major, flu pandemics, including the present one, this outbreak began in Asia. Obviously, to be specific Hong Kong. It appeared first in July 1968. Yes, during the summer of love when the hippie movement was growing. Hong Kong Flu spread rapidly to Vietnam and Singapore, then around the globe, just as COVID-19 is doing today.

Similar to COVID-19, the first US cases were on the West Coast. The virus was first documented in California. Epidemiologists traced the American outbreak to returning Vietnam War troops. By December, it was widespread in the country.

Even though I do not remember much about it, this pandemic killed an estimated 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most deaths were among people 65 years and older, much the same as the present pandemic is hitting baby boomers.

Currently, in January 2021, more than 400,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the USA alone.

Both Pandemics Return

There is a good reason that some of the world’s top epidemiologists are predicting that COVID-19 will return next year. That was the case with the with the 1978 pandemic. It returned in the following years: a year later, in late 1969 and early 1970, and in 1972.   

Update: January 2021, COVID is more devastating than ever.

Even with the huge number of cases and deaths, the overall case-fatality ratio was below .05%. In the United States, approximately 33,800 people died. With COVID-19, we have blown by that number of deaths and the case-fatality ratio in the US is currently 5.5%.

Hong Kong Flu sufferers experienced similar symptoms to those of COVID-19. It caused upper respiratory problems, chills, fever, and muscle pain and weakness. The difference is that with Hong Kong Flue these symptoms usually persisted for between four and six days.

Coping with the Pandemic

Hong Kong Flu

Then and now, humans find a way to shield themselves from such pandemics. An example of coping from 1969 is the above London Office workers were not practicing much social distancing, but they wore masks very much like those we see and wear in public today during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the same rudimentary precautions are recounted by one former worker in the Los Angeles public schools recounts, “Other than my coworkers bringing their own alcohol to wipe down their desks and wipe down pencils and not use pencils that clients had used, we didn’t do anything,”

Media Coverage

Here’s a few newspaper stories of the first 42 days of the Hong Kong Flu in the U.S., 52 years ago:

 “100% Effective Vaccine Lacking As Hong Kong Flu Spreads” -Indianapolis Star, Dec. 7, 1968

“Hong Kong Flu Just A Sissy; Colds Pack A Bigger Wallop” – The Boston Globe, Dec. 13, 1968

“Schools, Business Conquered By Flu” – Lansing State Journal, Dec. 13, 1968

“Hospitals Act On Flu Threat … Sixteen Facilities Limit Visiting Because Of Influenza Outbreak” – The Kansas City Times, Dec. 13, 1968  

“Absenteeism Soars As Hong Kong Flu Spreads” – The Ludington News, Dec. 16, 1968

And, yes it was the ’60s, one would expect some protests.

Hong Kong Flu Protests

If you have any remembrances of the 1968 pandemic, please jot them down in the comments section below.

For more, in-depth understanding so the Hong Kong Flu pandemic see these, from the CDC and the US National Museum of Medicine.

Have a look at our other Boomer generation HEALTH articles.

By Chowning

Richard Chowning was a teenager during the 60s. Being a Southern California resident during those years, he experienced many of the events and trends that distinguished those times.

2 thoughts on “Compare Hong Kong Flu Pandemic of 1968 and COVID-19”
  1. I live in Australia, I got the Hong Kong Flu in 1968 when I was 16 yrs old. I was sick for about 2 months, no hospital but I remember waking one day and mum was crying. I asked why and she said she thought I was going to die. I had lost a lot of weight. I believe it caused my auto immune problems that I suffer from today at 67.

  2. I live in Melbourne Australia. I was 16 in 1968 when I got HongKong Flu, I remember being sick for about 2 months. I don’t remember anyone else having it.

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