Dad Ruminates on the Swine Flu

My dad sent me the following and I thought it useful to share.

The current buzz over swine flu reminds me…

The Year 1976, HEADLINE: President Gerald Ford Orders Nationwide Vaccination Program to Prevent Swine Flu Epidemic!

President Ford was acting on the advice of medical experts, who believed they were dealing with a virus potentially as deadly as the one that caused the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic.

The virus surfaced in February, 1976, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where 19-year-old Pvt. David Lewis told his drill instructor that he felt tired and weak, although not sick enough to skip a training hike. Lewis was dead within 24 hours.

The autopsy revealed that Lewis had been killed by “swine flu,” an influenza virus originating in pigs. By then several other soldiers had been hospitalized with symptoms. Government doctors became alarmed when they discovered that at least 500 soldiers on the base were infected without becoming ill.

It recalled 1918, when infected soldiers returning from the trenches of World War I triggered a contagion that spread quickly around the world, killing at least 20 million people. Fearing another plague, US health officials urged Ford to authorize a mass inoculation program aimed at reaching every man, woman and child. He did, to the tune of $135 million (over $500 million in today’s money).

Mass vaccinations started in October. In churches, temples, union-halls, and schools, hundreds lined up for a shot of “swine flu vaccine.” I remember it was a beautiful fall day (Jimmy was about 8-months old) and I was in the cafeteria of St. Christopher Church getting my flu shot from a white-gowned ‘nurse’ who wielded a special vaccination device that shot the fluid at high-pressure directly under the skin – the pressure was so high that no needle was required. The actual shot took only seconds, and was accompanied by very little of the expected bureaucratic paperwork.

Whether it was a bad batch of the vaccine, wrong dose, an allergic reaction, or just side-effect from the vaccine, I’ll never know. Both Jimmy’s mother and I began to feel queasy within 20-minutes. Before I got home, I had to stop the car to throw-up. And the severe flu symptoms continued for both of us for nearly a week. My mother (who got her shot at a different time) came over to take care young Jim, and also wound up taking care of both of his parents.

There were other problems with the program.  Within weeks reports started coming in of people developing Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disease, right after taking the shot. Within two months, 500 people were affected, and more than 30 died. Amid a rising uproar and growing public reluctance to risk the shot, federal officials abruptly canceled the program Dec. 16.

In the end, 40 million Americans were inoculated, and there was no epidemic. More technically advanced examination of the virus revealed later that it was nowhere near as deadly as the 1918 influenza virus.

The only recorded fatality from 1976 swine flu itself was the unfortunate Pvt. Lewis.

History’s verdict of the program is mixed. Critics assailed Ford, accusing him of grandstanding during an election year — it did him no good, because he lost anyway — while kowtowing to the pharmaceutical companies. Supporters laud the ability of the nation’s health bureaucracy to mobilize so effectively.  (It still amazes me that they were actually able to immunize 40 million (!) people in a very short period of time. …amazing also that we all did it with very little panic or controversy… Similar circumstances today would see 20-million lawyers filing maybe 160-million lawsuits!)

I am guessing that whatever today’s flu is, it has mutated enough that I probably have no immunity resulting from my 1976 inoculation. In any case, I hope there is no need to go through that again!

Credit: Historical details courtesy of wired.com; personal recollections are my own.

Here’s just one of several public service announcements that were broadcast in 1976 regarding the possible impending epidemic.

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