Swine Flu Scare of 1976

February 5, 1976 – Private David Lewis, 19,  an Army recruit stationed at Fort Dix, NJ, tells his drill instructor that he felt tired and weak but joined a 50 mile hike through the central New Jersey woodlands.  Thirteen miles into the hike, Lewis collapses.  He dies of pneumonia the next day.  An autopsy reveals that Lewis had died from a strain of swine flu and  other soldiers report symptoms, some requiring hospitalization.  It is later discovered that over 500 soldiers on the base were infected though they did not have symptoms.

At Fort Dix, flu was first reported on January 19 and by February 9th no new cases were reported.  The infection was only seen at Fort Dix, but government scientists became alarmed when they notice that this strain of H1N1 closely resembles the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 20 million world-wide. They urge President Ford to initiate a mass vaccination program for every man, woman and child in the United States that begins on October 1, 1976 amid much publicity and advertising.  By mid December, 40 million Americans, roughly 1 in 4, have lined up and been vaccinated.  But reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a  nerve disease that can cause paralyse, shut down the program December 16.  It is estimated that over 500 develop Guillain-Barré syndrome and another 30 died as a result of the vaccine.  The only person to actually die from swine flu was Private Lewis.  Turns out the similarity between this strain and the 1918 strain were minimal.

In 2009 another strain of H1N1 was spreading.  Dr. Jonathan McCullers of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN,  reported in the Journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. “Our research shows that while immunity among those vaccinated in 1976 has waned somewhat, they mounted a much stronger immune response against the current pandemic H1N1 strain than others who did not receive the 1976 vaccine.”  Maybe it was worth it?

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Filed under 1970s, Ford

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