Following the collapse and death of Private David Lewis during a basic training exercise at Fort Dix, New Jersey on February 4, 1976, an investigation into the untimely death of the 19-year-old identified a long-dormant killer, but notorious as the cause.
Blood tests at the Center for Disease Control revealed that Lewis had contracted a type of swine flu that was believed at the time to be genetically close to the flu of 1918, mislabeled the ‘Spanish flu’, which claimed his life. to over 650,000 Americans and as many as 50 million worldwide. Eleven other soldiers from Fort Dix have tested positive for swine flu, but have recovered, while hundreds more at the base have tested positive for antibodies against swine flu. the New York Times reported on the front page that “the virus that caused the largest global flu epidemic in modern history – the 1918-19 pandemic – may have returned.”
With swine flu set to resurface later this fall, federal officials feared an even more deadly pandemic than that of nearly 60 years earlier. US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare F. David Mathews predicted that one million Americans would die during the 1976 flu season unless action was taken. Citing the “strong possibility” of a swine flu pandemic, CDC director David Sencer recommended an unprecedented plan: mass vaccination of American citizens.
READ MORE: Why the second wave of the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ was so deadly
Warned of a pandemic, Gerald Ford acted quickly
Although no other cases of swine flu have been detected outside of Fort Dix, the CDC has advocated a prevention better than cure approach. “The administration can tolerate unnecessary health care better than unnecessary death and illness,” Sencer wrote in a March 13 memo. When presented with a $ 135 million plan to prevent a pandemic that could cost billions of dollars and untold lives, President Gerald Ford had little political option, especially in an election year presidential. “There was no way to go back on Sencer’s memo,” a presidential aide recalled. “If we tried to do that, it would leak. This memo is a weapon in our head.
Knowing the greatest risk was doing nothing, Ford announced his support for the mass vaccination plan at a press conference, accompanied by polio vaccine developers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. “No one knows how serious this threat could be. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to take a chance with the health of our nation, ”the president said. Although CDC officials have expressed greater concerns about the recurrence of the flu epidemics of 1957 and 1968, each of which killed an estimated 100,000 Americans, administration officials have repeatedly raised the specter of 1918.
“Scientists at the time are not saying it will necessarily be the redux of the Spanish flu,” says George Dehner, associate professor of history at Wichita State University and author of Flu: a century of science and public health intervention. “The way scientists talked about it was more complex than politicians and the media, who sought to make the analogy with the Spanish flu.”
READ MORE: When the rules of mask wearing in the resistance to the 1918 pandemic
Charges of fear of the election year
As part of the National Swine Flu Vaccination Program, which has received bipartisan Congressional approval, the federal government plans to purchase 200 million doses of vaccines developed by pharmaceutical companies and distribute them free to health agencies. state health. It would have been the largest vaccination campaign in American history, even more ambitious than previous polio vaccination campaigns.
Problems affected the program from the start, however. A pharmaceutical company has produced 2 million doses of vaccine with the wrong strain of virus. The tests failed to reach appropriate antibody levels in children. And with the tight deadline preventing years of typical experimentation and clinical trials, insurance companies have refused to cover vaccine manufacturers for inevitable adverse reactions.
With Lewis still the only death from swine flu, studies finding the strain less virulent than previously thought and the United States being the only country to plan mass vaccinations, Ford’s critics accused him of frightening the public and playing politics with an impending presidential election. “There has always been an underlying doubt about the motivations behind these large-scale programs and whether they were really meant to make money for the drug companies,” Dehner says. Newsweek The company was already calling the “swine flu snafu” when a mysterious series of deaths stoked fears the epidemic had already started.
READ MORE: How 5 of the worst pandemics in history finally ended
Public confidence in the vaccine has declined
As the United States celebrated its bicentennial summer, respiratory illness killed 34 people linked to a Philadelphia hotel that had hosted an American Legion convention. Although the cause of what’s known as Legionnaires’ disease was a previously unknown bacteria in the hotel’s air conditioning system, swine flu was the initial suspect. With fears of a pandemic reigniting, Congress has agreed to compensate drug companies for any adverse reaction to vaccines.
Sencer and J. Donald Millar, who led the CDC’s flu vaccination effort, wrote decades later that the decision had the unintended consequence of undermining confidence in the vaccine and “ ensured that every event of Unintended health that arose as a result of the swine flu vaccine would be scrutinized and attributed to the vaccine. ”
As public service ads urged citizens to “protect themselves,” millions of Americans rolled up their sleeves as vaccinations began on October 1. While Ford joked, “may mean some arm pain,” the press reported the possibility of much worse consequences after three elderly people died from heart attacks shortly after being vaccinated at the same clinic in Pittsburgh. While investigations have found no link between the deaths and the vaccine, a number of states have temporarily suspended the program.
Although photographs of Ford receiving a vaccination were distributed in hopes of rallying support, public confidence was further shaken when dozens of vaccinees were diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder causing muscle weakness, tingling in the extremities, and paralysis.
Meanwhile, not only had a pandemic not yet emerged, but no swine flu cases outside of the Fort Dix cluster had even been reported. Even though there was no link between the vaccine and Guillain-Barré syndrome, the risk was no longer acceptable. After 45 million Americans – nearly a quarter of the nation’s population – were vaccinated the government halted the program on Dec. 16.
Ford lost his candidacy for re-election amid the vaccination program that, in hindsight, proved unnecessary when a repeat of 1918 – or even 1957 or 1968 – never materialized. “When lives are on the line, it’s better to err on the side of overreacting rather than under-reacting,” wrote Millar and Sencer, who lost their jobs months later. “In 1976, the federal government wisely chose to prioritize the protection of the public.