In July 1968, authorities in Hong Kong (then a British Crown Territory) noted the first case of a new and rather nasty form of influenza. It was called H3N2 in the easy parlance of virologists. By the end of the month it had spread to Vietnam and Singapore. By September it was in the Phillipines, Australia, Europe and the USA, on its way to to global pandemic status.
By anyone’s standards, 1968 was a fate-charged year. The Vietnam war was peaking in its ghastly climax. It sparked a series of violent insurrections and soul -searchings across many western counties. Campaigners for may types of rights, including Black, Gay and Women’s all rightly see ’68 as their seminal year. A lurid light was cast by the terrible assassinations of those rather mild politicians Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But if anyone dreamed that Communism offered anything better, China was in the grip of Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution. And the USSR crushed a fellow Communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
So Christmas that year was a pause in a Promethan year. To cap things off, the first humans left Earth orbit in Apollo 8 and, on Christmas Eve, sent back the heart-stopping iconic image for which that mission will be forever remembered. But as the nations settled down to prepare (and listen to Lily the Pink by The Scaffold) the virus just kept on spreading and spreading and spreading all around them. In the end, it is estimated to have killed between 1 and 4 million of us. and ruined weeks of life for many more. Most UK schools and families had more than one victim that Christmas. We think there may be a lesson in there, somewhere.
Firstly, as every schoolchild knows H3N2 flu virus is in a different family (orthomyxoviridae -ve RNA) to our new friend Sars-Cov-2 (Coronavirida +veRNA) Secondly, the disease was allowed to spread, and a vaccine became available in only four months. Thirdly, it was around for a long time, making a second surge in the following winter. Lastly, Lily the Pink has not aged well.
As long as humans live in densely packed clusters, overworked, stressed and eating badly, viruses will assail us again and again. The next one may not be so benign as H3N2 or even Sars-Cov-2. There may be something utterly nasty like Ebola. Science and its methods of evidence and careful thought are the only reasonable hope. So cheer when scientists offer you a vaccine. By the same token please, please don’t sulk like children when they tell you to stay indoors and not go out and get plastered.
We thank Mr David Crossland of Berkshire for this story
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