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County spared in flu epidemic of 1957

John Conway
Posted 10/14/22

While it may be difficult to believe considering the consistently low health rankings attributed to Sullivan County in recent years, this used to be considered among the healthiest regions in the …

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County spared in flu epidemic of 1957


While it may be difficult to believe considering the consistently low health rankings attributed to Sullivan County in recent years, this used to be considered among the healthiest regions in the country.  

Whether it was the dreaded scourge of tuberculosis in the late 19th century, the so-called Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1920, or the various outbreaks of polio over the years, Sullivan County seemed to always escape the worst of it.  

The nationwide epidemic of what was then known as the Asian flu during 1957 was no exception.  

While much of the country was sent reeling from the respiratory infection that summer and fall, resulting in large percentages of absenteeism from school and work, Sullivan County was relatively unscathed.  

Relatively unscathed, but not completely.  

The United Press reported on October 22, 1957, that the disease had claimed 249 lives in the U.S. that fall, with New York leading all other states with 55 deaths. The Middletown Daily Record noted in its October 11 edition that more than 500,000 students across the state had been stricken, “forcing schools to close and triggering a controversy over scarce vaccine supplies.”   

“An estimated 100 schools have been closed due to excessive absenteeism,” the Record reported.  

In a follow-up story in its October 22 edition, the Record announced in a page 2 headline that “Epidemic Hits County.”  

“As the Asian flu and other respiratory ailments continued their campaign through Orange County, four county schools were forced to close their doors for the remainder of the week,” the paper reported, listing Pine Bush, Otisville, Montgomery Central Schools, and Goshen as the schools most impacted by the epidemic.  

In Sullivan County, meanwhile, newspaper headlines were much more likely to herald the fact that the county was faring better than most.  

The Liberty Register newspaper reported in its October 24, 1957 edition that “Asian Flu Having No Effect on Absences.” 

“Thus far the Asian flu has made but little inroad upon local attendance,” the paper reported. 

Meanwhile, in that same edition, the paper’s correspondent for Hurleyville and Loch Sheldrake reported that the Hurleyville school had closed for two days, October 17 and 18, due to the flu, “though cases have been comparatively mild.” 

A week later, the paper continued heralding the county’s success against the flu. 

“Flu Epidemic Ebbs in County, Continues to Bypass Liberty,” a headline read in the October 31 edition of the Register.  

“That old devil, the Asian flu, which seems to have been dogging the steps of so many otherwise healthy  citizens all over the country, appears to be giving Liberty and environs a wide berth,” the Register reported. “This circumstance was ascertained by communication with the local hospitals, schools, and other places which have been acting as a barometer of the prevalent infection.”  

The paper went on to report that the absentee rate at the Liberty schools “averaged about 15 per cent according to David E. Panebaker, District Principal, yesterday afternoon.” 

The article reported that there were 98 absentees out of 801 students in grades one through six in the district, while 91 students were absent out of 650 students in the upper grades in Liberty. 

Some of the other school districts in the county were not faring so well, according to the Register. For example, the Delaware Valley school district in Callicoon had been forced to close down on October 16, although it was able to re-open on October 22. 

“School Nurse Helen Evans said that absences were averaging about 50 out of a total enrollment of approximately 560 and here again the picture looked much brighter than it had several weeks ago. There is no thought of further closing at this time.” 

“At Narrowsburg, Principal Roy V. Sullivan said that while Narrowsburg Central School had closed on October 15 with 105 absent out of 378, it had re-opened on October 21 and that absences are now running in the thirties—about ten percent as compared with a normal absentee rate of about four percent.” 

The article continued that “it was pointed out that all the precautions urged by local medical and school authorities in regard to school children—plenty of rest, fresh air, and particularly the precaution of not mingling in groups at public gatherings, affairs, or activities—apply equally to all adults at this time so that Liberty and the surrounding communities may retain the advantage that they seem to have gained over the epidemic Asian disease.” 

While there were no more mentions of the Asian flu in Sullivan County newspapers after that, the disease continued to impact the rest of the country well into the next year, and in some locations until the end of the decade. Today, the CDC provides two estimates of U.S. deaths from that outbreak: 70,000 Americans are said to have died from the Asian flu during the 1957-58 flu season, while an estimated 116,000 died from the disease between 1957 and 1960, at which time it was considered eradicated largely due to the effectiveness of a flu vaccine program.  

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. 


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