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Published May 03, 2009, 12:00 AM

Northland has escaped the worst of the flu before. How about now?

Local news coverage of pandemics in 1957 and 1968 reported schools closing and thousands sick. Now, we know more about handling major flu outbreaks.

By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune

On Halloween 1957, half the students at Fairmount Elementary in Duluth were out sick.

The Asian flu pandemic was sweeping the world, and the Northland had not been spared.

That month, Stowe, Piedmont and Lowell elementary schools in Duluth had absentee rates higher than 30 percent on some days. Illness closed Alborn and Clover Valley schools. Hibbing High School was missing 444 of 1,630 students on Oct. 30, and Cathedral School in Superior was closed for a day Oct. 23 after a third of the student body stayed home.

The Crosby-Ironton football team forfeited a game

to Little Falls after 16 of its

22 players fell ill with the flu.

The Asian flu and the Hong Kong flu of 1968 both were pandemics, like the one currently believed to be evolving under close global scrutiny.

A look at local news coverage of those earlier influenza attacks reveals waves of disruption and discomfort but no catastrophic problems in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

No reports of local deaths were seen in coverage of either pandemic.

Pandemics historically occur every 30 to 40 years, said Libby Welsh, nursing supervisor in the Duluth office of St. Louis County Public Health.

“We’re so overdue for a pandemic of flu, it’s crazy,” she said last week.

The H1N1 virus, also known as the swine flu, has made its way into Minnesota and Wisconsin. Experts say it will continue to spread. They also say not to panic, and to call doctors for advice before showing up at an office or emergency room.

“For 95 percent of the people who get this, it’s going to be just like the seasonal respiratory flu we get every year,” Welsh said.

The same held true for the pandemics of 1957 and 1968, according to News Tribune archives. The Hong Kong flu — which killed almost 34,000 people in the U.S. — wasn’t even identified in Duluth until weeks after it arrived.

A Jan. 16, 1969, news story read: “Hong Kong flu has come to Duluth. Actually, it’s been here for several weeks but only in an unofficial capacity until Wednesday. Local public health authorities granted the illness official status Wednesday afternoon after the State Department of Health’s medical laboratory reported indications of the new Asian flu virus in blood specimens from Duluthians.”

Other stories, before the status was declared, almost teased readers with headlines such as “No Hong Kong flu here — bet that doesn’t make you feel better.”

In 1957, medicine companies ran advertisements targeting treatment of the Asian flu, which killed almost 70,000 in the U.S. One began: “Mother, here’s important advice about Asian flu from the makers of the St. Joseph Aspirin

for Children.”

News stories during both pandemics were short and ran low on Page One, or inside the paper without photos. More attention was given to crime and politics.

By November 1957, the overall health of Duluth residents appeared to be on the mend, but schools on the Iron Range and Solon Springs and Bennett in Wisconsin were forced to close.

Duluth schools remained open through the height of the Asian flu outbreak.

Dr. Carl O. Kohlbry, public schools health officer for Duluth, was quoted Oct. 29, 1957, saying: “We don’t foresee the closing of any schools unless the number of absentees reaches one-third of a school’s enrollment.”

The same front-page story said school officials suspected some of the absenteeism was from students taking advantage of the situation and falsely claiming the flu.

The 1968 Hong Kong flu is considered the most recent pandemic by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Three “flu scares” have occurred since, most recently the avian, or bird, flu scare of the past decade.

Welsh said she was unsure whether H1N1 will turn into a pandemic.

“We know so much more now about taking care of people when they are sick than we did back when the Spanish flu was going around in 1918 — even than when we had our last major outbreak in 1968,” she said.

Health experts have learned that “social distancing” or measures such as closing schools are effective in stopping the flu’s spread.

In an Oct. 24, 1957, News Tribune story, Wisconsin’s deputy state health officer said his department had taken no action on requests from communities to order their schools closed because of flu-related absences.

He said there was no evidence to prove that closing schools would be a “barrier to the spread of influenza.”