How to Deal with Swine Flu: Heeding the Mistakes of 1976





In 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.

Medical historians 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.)

"I think 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." (See pictures of bird flu.)


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