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The Long Shadow of the 1976 Swine Flu Vaccine ‘Fiasco’

Some, but not all, of the hesitance to embrace vaccines can be traced back to this event more than 40 years ago

This 1976 photograph shows a woman receiving a vaccination during the nationwide swine flu vaccination campaign. (CDC)
smithsonian.com

In the spring of 1976, it looked like that year’s flu was the real thing. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t, and rushed response led to a medical debacle that hasn’t gone away.

“Some of the American public’s hesitance to embrace vaccines — the flu vaccine in particular — can be attributed to the long-lasting effects of a failed 1976 campaign to mass-vaccinate the public against a strain of the swine flu virus,” writes Rebecca Kreston for Discover.  “This government-led campaign was widely viewed as a debacle and put an irreparable dent in future public health initiative, as well as negatively influenced the public’s perception of both the flu and the flu shot in this country.”

To begin with: you should get a flu shot. You should certainly get all of your other vaccines and make sure your children get them. They will protect you and others from getting deadly and debilitating things like mumps, whooping cough, polio and measles. But this is a story about one time over 40 years ago when poor decision-making on the part of the government led to the unnecessary vaccination of about 45 million citizens. We can't blame it for the modern anti-vaccine movement, which has more recent roots in a retracted paper that linked one vaccine to autism, but it certainly had an effect on the public's view of vaccines.

On February 4 1976, a young soldier named David Lewis died of a new form of flu. In the middle of the month, F. David Matthews, the U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare, announced that an epidemic of the flu that killed Pvt. Lewis was due in the fall. “The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu,” he said, reports Patrick di Justo for Salon. He went on: the 1918 outbreak of “Spanish flu” killed half a million Americans, and the upcoming apocalypse was expected to kill a million.

Spanish influenza was another form of swine flu, di Justo writes, and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control thought that what was happening could well be a new, even deadlier strain that was genetically close to the 1918 strain.  

To avoid an epidemic, the CDC believed, at least 80 percent of the United States population would need to be vaccinated. When they asked Congress for the money to do it, politicians jumped on the potential good press of saving their constituents from the plague, di Justo writes.

The World Health Organization adopted more of a wait-and-see attitude to the virus, writes Kreston. They eventually found that the strain of flu that year was not a repeat or escalation of the 1918 flu, but “the U.S. government was unstoppable,” di Justo writes. They had promised a vaccine, so there needed to be a vaccine.  

This all happened in the spring, with emergency legislation for the “National Swine Flu Immunization Program,” being signed into effect in mid-April. By the time immunizations began on Oct. 1, though, the proposed epidemic had failed to emerge (although Legionnaires' Disease had, confusing matters further.)

“With President Ford’s reelection campaign looming on the horizon, the campaign increasingly appeared politically motivated,” Kreston writes. In the end, one journalist at The New York Times went so far as to call the whole thing a “fiasco.” Epidemiology takes time, politics is often about looking like you’re doing something and logistics between branches of government are extremely complicated. These factors all contributed to the pandemic that never was.

The real victims of this pandemic were likely the 450-odd people who came down with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, after getting the 1976 flu shot. On its website, the CDC notes that people who got the vaccination did have an increased risk of “approximately one additional case of GBS for every 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine.”

Several theories as to why this happened exist, they say, “but the exact reason for this link remains unknown.” As for the flu shot today, the CDC writes, if there is any increased risk it is “very small, about one in a million. Studies suggest that it is more likely that a person will get GBS after getting the flu than after vaccination.”

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