California travel advisor recalls 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic

|
Marilyn Brown and her husband, Claude, with their son Steven in London. Steven survived the influenza pandemic in 1968 when he was three months old.
Marilyn Brown and her husband, Claude, with their son Steven in London. Steven survived the influenza pandemic in 1968 when he was three months old.

Marilyn Brown, owner of See the World Travel & Tours in Harbor City, Calif., remembers vividly the events of late December 1968.

She and her husband, Claude, had enjoyed Christmas Day with their four children. It was the first Christmas for their youngest, Steven, who was born three months prior on Sept. 27.

The next morning, though, Steven would wake up very sick. Brown immediately took him to the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Los Angeles, which she found in a state she never expected.

“It was jam-packed,” Brown recalled. “I’ve never been in a hospital since then where I had seen so many people. We had to sit on the floor with this sick baby, and when they finally saw him, they said he had to be admitted.”

The youngest Brown had contracted the H3N2 influenza A virus, colloquially known as the Hong Kong flu. The 1968 pandemic caused by H3N2 was the last of the 20th century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Now, amid the second pandemic of the 21st century (the first was the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, often referred to as swine flu), Brown, 81, reflected about her experience in 1968 and how today’s pandemic feels very, very different.

Marilyn Brown (front right) with part of a group she took on a cruise that returned Jan. 28.
Marilyn Brown (front right) with part of a group she took on a cruise that returned Jan. 28.

Much like today’s Covid-19 patients are isolated from healthy populations, Brown’s son was isolated in 1968.

“We couldn’t go any further than the door to the room,” she said. She recalled that he was hospitalized for a little over a week, and because he was an infant, “they put the IV in his forehead, in the top of his head, so he couldn’t thrash and knock it out. I remember that just about killed us, watching that.”

Although watching Steven’s illness play out was painful for his family, they respected the isolation, and he made a full recovery.

Before Steven got sick, the Browns didn’t know much about the flu. After the ordeal, she still viewed it as just a particularly bad flu -- it wasn’t like the coronavirus today, with much of the country under quarantine or being asked to self-isolate and practice social distancing.

At the time, Brown worked for the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services (she would go on to take travel courses at the Los Angeles Community College District in 1980 and went full time as an agent upon her retirement in 1993). 

“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,” Brown said.

In fact, the coronavirus reminds Brown more of the polio epidemic that she went through as a child growing up in Michigan. One of her cousins died as a result. 

“I can remember my mother worrying all summer,” she said.

Today, Brown finds herself taking the recommended precautions against coronavirus, such as rigorous cleaning, staying home and getting only takeout or delivery from her favorite restaurants. One of her children brings her groceries.

Brown primarily books group trips for active seniors. The most recent trip she led returned from Dubai on Jan. 28. For the first 10 days after the trip, the group remained in contact, sharing photos and memories.

“And then all of a sudden, it was like, will we ever be able to travel again?” she said.

Business going forward hasn’t been too affected -- she has some cruises on the books that haven’t canceled -- but Brown likened the pandemic’s potential impact on travel advisors to the airline commission cuts of the 1990s. At the time, she was an independent contractor for an agency that was forced to shut its doors due to the cuts. In the aftermath, Brown began her focus on group trips.

As the travel agency community deals with coronavirus, Brown recommended that advisors use the time to call their clients.

“Call and talk, and think about bringing in travel into the conversations: ‘Where would you like to go if we weren’t stuck here? Would you like to start planning so that you’ll be ready?’” she said.

Comments

From Our Partners


From Our Partners

The Latest in Las Vegas
The Latest in Las Vegas
Watch Now
The Mexico Advisor
The Mexico Advisor
Read More
Historic Highlights of Germany Guide
Historic Highlights of Germany Guide
Read More

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI