Anyone in their early 50′s remember the Swine Flu scare of 1976. As a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in October of 1976, I received my inoculation for the dreaded virus. In August of that year President Gerald Ford received $135 million dollars from Congress after a 6 month debate to do a mass vaccination of the 220 million Americans by the end of the year. That decision is still argued today by national experts.
On February 5th of that year a 19 year old Army recruit at Ft. Dix felt sick in in 24 hours was dead. The influenza he died from was a strain not seen since the plague of 1918-1919 that killed 500,000 Americans. Within 2 weeks another 500 soldiers had caught the so called “swine flu” influenza although none had died and many had not even gotten sick. Any flu that could reach that many people that quickly certainly was capable of becoming another world plague.
The seriousness of the outbreak in 1918 -1919 was the basis of the decision to inoculate. Known as “The Great Plague” it killed 20 million people worldwide. It was known for its sudden ability to strike suddenly and take lives swiftly. The name “swine flu” was given because it was a brand of flu usually found in domestic pigs. Flu’s of this kind can eventually jump from animal to human when humans are in contact or in close quarters with the animals. It was believed to be transmitted from a group of American soldiers who had trained in the South and then gone to Europe.
How the strain of flu reappeared in 1976 at Ft. Dix still has not been determined. Debate raged for months between the medical community, the government and the Center for Disease Control. Decisions had to be made quickly to begin to produce enough of the serums. President Ford announced on March 24th, 1976 his decision to support the plan. In the following months, Congress weighed in on the debate. There were no good answers. What if an epidemic broke out and vaccines were not ready? What if they spend the $135 million dollars for a plague that did not happen? What would be the cost of taking the drug community off of other important research work to put an all out effort into this effort?
The drug companies threw another salvo into the fight with the insistence that the government take responsibility of any harmful side effect from the vaccine since it was not well tested. Some critics claimed President Ford campaign was influenced by these drug companies. The Congress eventually sided with the President and by October 1st the public health system of the United States was rallied to give out thousands of injections at schools, firehouses, and medical centers across the country.
Within days of the start people began to get seriously ill from the vaccine. On Oct. 12th, 3 elderly individuals from Pennsylvania suffered heart attacks and died within hours of receiving the shot. The State decided to temporarily suspend the program. Reports continued to be received through the month of November of various serious side effects including neurological problems. By December 16th, the nation suspended the entire program with a little over 40 million people being vaccinated.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, a adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and a world renown expert on infectious diseases was on KQRS radio from Minneapolis this morning. Some of his comments were:
• One of his fears is the way the world drug companies manufacture vaccines is basically the same way they have since the mid 50’s and that the lead time is probably 6 months. Also most of the manufacturing is done in Europe and if a pandemic develops, there is little chance of a Germany or France sending vaccines needed in their country to America.
• 3M is the major manufacturer of protective masks used in the medical field and they will not be able to handle the demand. If shortages occur, how will the public react?
• Good hygiene and hand washing can and would slow the spread of this between people.
Only time will tell how this latest 2009 version of swine flu will play out.