NEWS2U Health & Wellness
Living Healthy in an Unhealthy World

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The 1976 Swine Flu Scare And Mass Vaccination

Swine Flu Caused Only 1 Death, Vaccination Blamed For Many More

Apr 28, 2009

In late April 2009, concerns are mounting in the U.S. and across the world about the threat of a swine flu pandemic.

As of April 28, swine flu had killed more than 150 people in Mexico, the epicenter of the disease.

There have also been 52 cases reported in the U.S., and two deaths in Los Angeles were being investigated April 28 for possible connections to swine flu. Cases have also been reported in several other countries around the world.

This has been enough for the World Health Organization to warn of a flu pandemic, which in other instances in history have spread around the world and caused tens of millions of deaths over the course of less than a year. But predictions for flu pandemics aren't always reliable.

Health officials found that out the hard way in 1976.

It started when a 19-year-old Army recruit named David Lewis got sick with swine flu at Fort Dix, N.J. in January of that year. He joined his platoon on a 50-mile hike through New Jersey despite having the flu, but collapsed from pneumonia 13 miles into the hike and died soon afterward, according to a article.

A total of 155 more soldiers at Fort Dix soon got sick too, and while all of them survived, a panic was set off. The Centers for Disease Control discovered that Lewis had antibodies for a strain of influenza similar to the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed 20 million people worldwide in just 10 months.

This prompted the Ford Administration to order the development of a swine flu vaccine, with the goal of vaccinating everyone in the country and staving off a pandemic.

A 1976 Swine Flu Public Service Announcement

Scientists later concluded that the swine flu discovered at Fort Dix wouldn't cause a pandemic, and that the strain of flu found in Lewis' body wasn't nearly as potent as the one that killed tens of millions in 1918, said.

Nonetheless, the vaccination program went ahead. In Chicago, the Cook County Department of Health and the Chicago Lung Association trained 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers on a jet injector that was used to administer the vaccine. And while the shipment of the vaccine to Chicago arrived was five weeks late, Chicagoans lined up on Oct. 4, 1976, to receive them.

But within weeks, the panic was not about swine flu itself, but about the vaccinations.

First, a dozen elderly people died after getting the shots, although it was determined later that some of those deaths were unrelated to the vaccine. There was also speculation of a link between the vaccine and the paralyzing disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome.

By October 13, Illinois and five other states had suspended their vaccination programs, although the City of Chicago program continued on.

Then-Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Murray Brown said it was never necessary to stop the shots on the state level.

"It's a very poor decision," Brown told CBS 2.

But ultimately, after more than 30 deaths, the vaccination program was canceled in December.

After the program, reports, critics accused President Ford of mobilizing the mass vaccination because it was an election year, while supporters praised him for the nationwide mobilization. Ford, of course, lost to Jimmy Carter in November.

(© MMIX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)