February 1976, an outbreak of swine flu struck Fort Dix Army base
in New Jersey, killing a 19-year-old private and infecting hundreds
of soldiers. Concerned that the U.S. was on the verge of a devastating
epidemic, President Gerald Ford ordered a nationwide vaccination
program at a cost of $135 million (some $500 million in today’s
money). Within weeks, reports surfaced of people developing Guillain-Barré
syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disease that can be caused by the vaccine.
By April, more than 30 people had died of the condition. Facing
protests, federal officials abruptly canceled the program on Dec.
16. The epidemic failed to materialize.
and epidemiologists say there are many differences between the relatively
benign 1976 outbreak and the current strain of swine flu that is
spreading across the globe. But they also say the decisions made
in the wake of the ’76 outbreak – and the public’s response
to them – provide a cautionary tale for public health officials,
who may soon have to consider whether to institute draconian measures
to combat the disease. (See
pictures of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico.)
1976 provides an example of how not to handle a flu outbreak, but
what’s interesting is that it made a good deal of sense at the time,"
says Hugh Pennington, an emeritus professor of virology at Britain’s
University of Aberdeen. Pennington points out that conventional
wisdom in 1976 held that the 1918 flu pandemic – which started
among soldiers and eventually killed as many as 40 million –
was the result of swine flu (scientists now know it was in fact
a strain of bird flu). Despite modern advances in microbiology,
today’s health officials still make decisions in a "cloud of
uncertainty," Pennington says. "At the moment, our understanding
of the current outbreak is similarly limited. For example, we don’t
yet understand why people are dying in Mexico but not elsewhere."
pictures of bird flu.)