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1976 Swine Flu Scare

The writer is a history enthusiast who likes to explore the various perspectives of past events that shaped the future landscape.

A Screen-Grab of the 1976 Vaccination Advertisement

A Screen-Grab of the 1976 Vaccination Advertisement

Timeline: 1976 Swine Flu Pandemic

January 1976, Outbreak of mystery illness at Fort Dix base, PA.

February 4, A 19-year-old private, possibly patient zero of the swine influenza outbreak, succumbs to his illness. Dozen more report in sick and test positive for antibodies.
A group of intramural and extramural influenza experts reach a near consensus that the Fort Dix swine flu could likely become the source of an imminent pandemic, similar to that of 1918, because Fort Dix virus had the antigenic characteristics of what was thought to be the 1918 virus.

February 14, CDC issues a notice to all U.S. hospitals to be on the lookout for any cases of swine flu.

March 13, Citing the “strong possibility” of a swine flu pandemic, CDC Director David Sencer recommends an unprecedented plan - a mass vaccination of U.S. citizens. What later became the infamous 'Sencer Memo', outlines a proposal of $135 million to prevent the pandemic that could cost billions of dollars and loss of several lives.

March 15, U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, F. David Mathews in a more strongly worded memo warns of a possible return of 1918 flu:
“There is evidence there will be a major flu epidemic this coming fall. The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu,” “In 1918, a half million people died. The projections are that this virus will kill one million Americans in 1976", Mathews wrote

March 24, President Gerald R. Ford, flanked by virologist Dr. Jonas Salk (pioneers of polio vaccine) and U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare F David Mathews, announces a national swine flu immunization program during a White House Press Briefing.

April 8, Merck's liability insurance company warns the drug maker its coverage would end if Merck participated in the vaccination program. Other insurers soon follow suit

July, Scientific community began to arrive at a near concensus that For Dix strain, as initially believed was far less virulent.

August 2, Two members of the American Legion die of a strange respiratory disease they acquired at the convention of the American Legion at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. Death toll mounts in coming days and around 29* casualties are reported off the 182 cases. Media springs into action spreading fear and paranoia over the deaths.

Initially believed to be swine influenza, the causative agent would only later be identified as an unknown strain of bacteria, and subsequently named Legionella and the disease - Legionnaire.

August 3, Panicked over the Legions deaths, Congress agrees to completely indemnify the drug companies against any and all lawsuits they might incur as a result of swine flu vaccination adverse reactions/mishaps.

August 5, The CDC director testifies before Congress that the Legions had died of a new disease, a type of pneumonia that was definitely not swine flu. Congress springs into action and cancels the indemnification agreement with the drug companies. The drug companies announce that they would immediately cease development of swine flu vaccines. Amidst the re-indemnification chorus, they now were also eying reasonable profits.

August 15, President Ford signs the National Influenza Immunization Program (NIIP). This indemnified the drug companies.

September, CDC was still investigating the death of the legions and it could only confirm swine flu wasn't the cause. Congressman John Murphy of Staten Island demands an investigation into the CDC, claiming that CDC was stalling on identifying the Legionnaire's disease to panic people into fearing swine flu.

October 1, National Immunization Program kicks off, as American citizens line up to get the protection shot.

October 11, Approximately 40 million American innoculated. Same day 3 Senior citizens die of heart attack shortly after recieving the shots at a Pittsburgh clinic. The deaths lead to city official suspending all flu vaccinations until further notice.

October 14, In a televised address, President Ford and family get innoculated to boost public confidence.

December 14, 54 cases of Guillain Barre reported by CDC in its findings from 10 states.

December 16, National Immunization Program offically gets scrapped. Around 45 million Americans already innoculated by then.

No one knows how serious this threat could be. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to take a chance with the health of our nation.

— Gerald Ford (1976)

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60 Minutes: Swine Flu Episode (1976)

When lives are at stake, it is better to err on the side of overreaction than underreaction.

— J. Donald Millar

A Pandemic That Wasn't

Turning back the chapters of history
I stumbled upon this story
ostensibly, a tale of failures
or deception perhaps
definitely not of glory
of men who pretend, donning a persona
like politicians and god-men
or NGOs masquerading their intent
under pretence of greater good
In deed, a puzzle it seem
but it fits like a jigsaw
and you can draw parallel,
see where this all goes

Not hearsay, it happened in New Jersey
January of '76, Dix in a fix
as a mystery illness spills
possibly from pigs
They exhort the cohort
it's base in a fort
Private life matters
but this made public
Isolated cases then form basis
paranoia sparks, that's basic
By February, a fatality adds to the stress and piques interest of the press
'Specter of 1918'—front pages flash
propaganda spreads, the pandemic is back!

In upper echelons situation tense
It's March, memos shoot off from CDC to HEW
'better safe than sorry' approach
duds! Lot of smoke
Budget of $135 Million to save a million lives
assumed otherwise shall perish
200 million vaccines, hence be stockpiled
March 24th, mass immunization, the President's call
endorsed by famed scientists and experts
and executed by bureaucratic lot
Unprecedented is the scale
even previous efforts towards pox & polio fail

Meanwhile at CDC, the killer gets traced
with surface glycoproteins
HA and Neuraminidase
Swine Influenza identified
novel or perhaps modified?
(A/New Jersey/76(Hsw1N1)
But from strain you gain
Vaccine—Reassortant X53
Publicity creates traction
just what's needed by the faction
Expedited Clinical trials, then mass production

By April the stage almost set
just a couple offsets
Demands for protection, drug makers on protest
two million rushed doses, albeit the wrong strain
August in Philadelphia—a convention and further chaos
as legions fall to Legionnaire
the situation adds to the cause
Congress then pushes law
Federal Government assumes insurance-liability, for vaccination flaws

In retrospect, it's all easy to comprehend
real time, it's a mess
a critical juncture nonetheless
So back to business
as usual vaccination on schedule
and so are the elections
October 1st, vaccination drive kicks off initial hiccups but it picks up
Even POTUS inoculates
its a televised address
to boost public confidence

Inoculation goes into overdrive
43 Million in record time
unfortunately, not the supposed pandemic that's nabbed
Come mid December, National Immunization Program gets shelved
owed to neurological complications—Guillain Barré in the jabbed
also concerning are the Pittsburgh deaths

Despite the air of mistrust
Election rush, and the hush
the secret though out in the open
'They fixed, the disease that didn't exist'
Few deaths and sickness to many more
'SNAFU', chapters in annals record
By now, the fog clears up
its all black and white
and irrespective of who set the board,
in this chess match only pawns sacrificed

No escaping responsibility
it's incumbent upon,
maybe, and not necessarily
the incumbent's fault
Predicted outcome either way though
Carter in, Ford has to go
and with that it's game over
But who really won,
that's the real question?

Glossary

  1. SNAFU: 'Situation Normal All F***** Up'. The acronym is believed to have originated in the United States Marine Corps during Word War II.Also used as a slang for a confused or chaotic state; a mess.
  2. H or HA (Hemagglutinin) & N or NA (Neuraminidase): Hemagglutinin and neuraminidase are two key glycoproteins that protrude from the outer surface of the influenza virus. These glycoproteins are important in the ability of the virus to cause influenza. While HA aids in host selction as well as the specific target cells and binding onto them, NA aids in cleaving and release of genetic material into the host cell. 18 hemagglutinin and 11 neuraminidase subtypes are known to exist in nature.
  3. HEW: United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, renamed to the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979 following the establishment of the Department of Education
  4. Legionnaire disease or Legionellosis: A severe type of pneumonia that usually develops 2 to 10 days after exposure to the Legionella bacteria. No human to human transmission, the bacteria spreads through mist, such as from air-conditioning units for large buildings. Early symptoms are similar to that of flu. Mortality rate of 5-10%. Legionella may also cause a milder condition referred to as Pontiac fever. Pontiac fever has symptoms similar to those of a mild flu and isn't life-threatening.
  5. American Legion: Also known as the Legion, is a nonprofit organization of U.S. war veterans headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
  6. Guillain-Barré: Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) (Ghee-YAN Bah-RAY) syndrome is a rare, autoimmune disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerves, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Usually patient first experiences weakness or tingling sensations in both legs, this sometimes spreads to the arms and upper body. Symptoms may last for a few weeks to several years. Most people recover fully, but some have permanent nerve damage. Infection with Campylobacter jejuni, which causes diarrhea, is one of the most common risk factors for GBS. People also can develop GBS after infections such as flu, cytomegalovirus, Epstein Barr virus, and Zika virus. Rarely, GBS may also occur in the days or weeks after receiving certain vaccines.

Fort Dix outbreak was a false alarm.

— Richard Krause (2006)

References and Further Reading

  • Schmeck Jr., H. M. (1976, February 20). U.S. Calls Flu Alert On Possible Return Of Epidemic’s Virus. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/02/20/archives/us-calls-flu-alert-on-possible-return-of-epidemics-virus-us-flu.html
  • 1976 Swine Flu Vaccination Program. Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/12/1/05-1007_article

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ashutosh Joshi

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