Fear of a Swine Flu Epidemic in 1976 Offers Some Lessons, and Concerns, Today





With health authorities now gearing up for what could be a huge vaccination campaign against a new strain of swine flu, the experience of 1976 is raising a note of caution.

The feared swine flu epidemic of 1976 never materialized. And several hundred people, including Ms. [Janet] Kinney, who is now 68 and lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological condition that causes temporary muscle weakness or paralysis. More than 30 of those people died.

Many experts say they do not think a vaccine for the new flu strain, called H1N1, would raise a similar risk for Guillain-Barré. But answering that question is difficult because to this day, no one has figured out why the 1976 vaccine caused the disease, in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the nerves.

Indeed, some researchers still question whether the vaccine did cause Guillain-Barré, particularly since flu vaccines in other years have been linked to little or no risk of the disease.


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