Recalling the 1976 Swine Flu Debacle

In the history of the United States, this is not the first time that the country is experiencing a swine flu outbreak. The first recorded incident of H1N1 infection in the US was recorded on January 27, 1976, when there was a small outbreak of mild respiratory illnesses took place at Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey.

According to throat cultures obtained from sick soldiers, each of the patients were infected by “swine-like flu virus” which have been unknown to humans since 1930. It was believed that the same virus was also responsible for the worst flu pandemic in the United States in 1918-1919 which led to the death of half a million Americans.

To many people, the discovery of the 1976 was more of a debacle than a victory because after only 10 weeks of implementation, vaccination efforts came to a premature close as the program led to complications which were associated to the shots.

After the death of Private David Lewis after participating in a forced five-mile march the night before his demise, Dr. David Sencer and his colleagues attributed the death to strains of swine-like flu virus. Upon the advice of specialists across the United States, Dr. Sencer called on then President Gerald Ford to launch a nationwide mass inoculation.

President Ford and the US Congress heeded the call and in October implemented the $137-million National Inoculation Program. However, after only several days of implementation, there were reports that the vaccine being used for the program made the patients prone to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder which results to temporary paralysis but could be risky.

Prior to its premature end in December 1976, the vaccine was administered to over 40 million Americans comprising almost 25% of the population. From the over 500 people who experienced Guillain-Barre Syndrome after vaccine administration, 25 people died. As a result, the Federal Government paid millions worth of damages to the families of the victims.

Meanwhile, the epidemic which some experts predicted would affect 50 to 60 million Americans during that time never happened. According to the Center for Disease Control, there were only 200 confirmed cases and one death.

It is understandable why the current H1N1 outbreak has been a source of anxiety for the public who recalls the 1976 event. It serves as a lesson for the government and health officials who needs to make a decision on the current swine flu in the days and weeks to come.

Dr. David Sencer, who is now retired and resides in Atlanta, believes that the 1976 debacle brought good things as well as bad. The belief that the 1918-19 flu epidemic resulted from swine-like virus partly contributed to the 1976 setback.

Although current studies have shown that the cause of the epidemic was bird flu, it did not ease the current anxiety prevailing in the public. The 1918-19 epidemic led to the death of 500,000 people in the United States and more than 50 million worldwide.

In Mexico, where the 2009 swine flu outbreak, originated, 22 people have died from the most recent outbreak. Government officials have been under fire for the way they have handled the situation. However, with such a mystery surrounding the threat, Dr. Peter Katona, who is an authority on infectious disease from UCLA, believes that people have failed to understand the challenges posed by such problem.