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What is the Asian Flu?

By Amanda Piontek
Updated May 17, 2024
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Asian influenza, commonly known as the Asian flu, is a viral respiratory illness caused by the H2N2 strain of Type A influenza. The H2N2 Asian flu is the result of avian influenza — that is, a flu normally found in birds — crossed with a human influenza virus. The Asian flu results in symptoms similar to many other strains of influenza, including fever, body aches, chills, cough, weakness, and loss of appetite. The Asian flu was responsible for a Category 2 flu pandemic from 1956 to 1958, meaning that it was a worldwide spread of the virus with a case-to-fatality ratio between 0.1 and 0.5 percent. H2N2 became extinct in the wild circa 1968.

Influenza is an illness caused by many subtypes that can change, mutate, and cross with other strains. Occasionally a bird or animal flu can reassort its genetic material, cross the animal-human species barrier, and begin infecting the human population. The H2N2 Asian flu was the result of a cross between a virus found in wild ducks and a human influenza virus.

Asian flu causes many of the symptoms commonly reported in an influenza virus. Influenza is a respiratory illness, so a dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing are all widely reported among flu sufferers. Influenza usually results in a high fever and body aches or chills. An individual might have no appetite and subsequently lose weight. Recovery from the H2N2 can take many weeks; complications include pneumonia, seizures, heart failure, and death.

Asian influenza caused a worldwide pandemic in 1956, when the virus jumped from ducks to humans and then began human-to-human transmission. It originated in the province of Guizhou, China, and traveled to Singapore and Hong Kong. From there, the Asian influenza virus spread to the rest of the world. Although the illness infected humans across the globe, it remained a relatively mild pandemic and is rated as a Category 2 on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Pandemic Severity Index Chart. This chart rates pandemic flu from one to five — mild to severe — according to the number of influenza deaths reported in the U.S.

A vaccine for H2N2 was introduced in 1957, and the pandemic slowed down. There was a second wave in 1958, and H2N2 went on to become part of the regular wave of seasonal flu. In 1968, the H2N2 Asian flu disappeared from the human population and is believed to have gone extinct in the wild. Vials of H2N2 influenza remain in laboratories across the world.

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Discussion Comments

By anon992960 — On Oct 13, 2015

How come I get the flu after Thanksgiving?

By SteamLouis — On Nov 11, 2014

@Steamland-- The question itself is a very judgmental and prejudiced. What makes you think that all pandemic diseases come from Asia? They emerge in other areas of the world all the time. Take Ebola, which emerged in Africa.

The only difference is that in countries where health care systems are very developed, these instances are diagnosed and quarantined much faster. So the chances of the pandemic spreading is reduced and it's usually eliminated altogether this way.

By ddljohn — On Nov 10, 2014

@donasmrs-- They are not the same but they mutated from the same virus. They are subtypes of what is called influenza A. Asian flu is H2N2 as the article said and Avian flu is H5N1. They start out in wild birds and sometimes, they infect humans and become an epidemic. There are other types of influenza A that affect other animals like pigs (aka swine flu). But most flu viruses in this category exist in birds, fewer amount affect pigs and humans.

Yes, these viruses change and adapt all the time. That's they're survival mechanism. They're constantly mutating, evolving, taking on new names and jumping from one animal to the next.

By donasmrs — On Nov 09, 2014

What about the bird flu that showed up in various parts of the world in 2006 and 2007? Was it the same as Asian flue or was it a slightly different strain of the virus? Does the virus keep changing?

By WildHooper — On Nov 05, 2014

@Steamland, as far as we know there are two reasons for this. One is just probability. Asia contains a huge portion of the world's population and is a massive part of the geographic world. People sometimes refer to Asia like it's a single country but about a third of the world is classified as Asia. Add in more than half the world's population and it makes sense than many of the worlds diseases would originate there. Also to blame is the developing nature of many regions within Asia. Not only do billions of people live relatively close together, some live close together in poor hygienic conditions with little access to proper sanitation and clean water. Compound this with the fact that a portion of these people live in close contact with farm animals. Farm animals, like ducks, chickens and pigs are usually the original hosts from which many new diseases mutate and make the jump to humans. Not only that but often these farm animals live in close proximity with each other which can promote mutation conditions in certain viruses and bacteria.

By Steamland — On Nov 05, 2014

Why do all of these horrible pandemic diseases seem to come from Asia? Why don't they originate in places like America?

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