As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, it never takes this blog very long to get back to 1976. This week, however, we’ve all gone back. The burgeoning swine flu outbreak has inspired memories of the previous swine flu threat, which was one of the top news stories of 1976. There’s a pretty good summary of the story right here and a timeline of newspaper headlines from the period here, which reminded me of a lot I had forgotten.
The scare started in February, peaked in March and April, and spiked again in early August after the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak in Philadelphia (which had nothing to do with the swine flu). As summer turned to fall, preparations to vaccinate all 220 million Americans for swine flu were underway. The government rolled out a couple of public-service announcements to encourage people to participate. (These have been turning up all over the Internet in the last few days, but I’m going to put ’em up anyhow.)
Poor Dotty. She looks so happy, but she’s so very dead.
It’s impossible to gauge whether the PSAs helped, or how much. In the weeks before the vaccination program began, polls showed only about half of Americans were planning to get the shot. Vaccinations began in October, and reports of adverse reactions to the vaccine began almost immediately. Weeks of intense controversy followed. By the time the vaccination program was suspended in December, after the vaccine was linked to the paralyzing neuromuscular disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, between a quarter and a third of Americans had been vaccinated. The rest of us decided we’d rather take our chances with the flu. As I recall, there was no panic at my house. I did not live through my favorite year in the shadow of impending doom, because it wouldn’t have been my favorite year if I had. We must have discussed whether to get vaccinated, but I don’t think any of us did. As it turned out, the flu itself killed exactly one person—a soldier at Fort Dix who died in February, and whose death started the whole scare. Swine-flu vaccine killed 25 others and sickened about 500. By late 1978, the government faced over $2 billion in claims from people who said they’d had vaccine reactions.
Many government officials suggested in succeeding years that the Ford Administration had little choice but to do what it did, although it’s worth noting that the director of the Centers for Disease Control got fired over the debacle in early 1977, so even back then, there was a perception that the whole thing was goofy. In the end, the swine-flu fiasco had a lot in common with many other things we did during the 1970s: It seemed like a good idea at the time even though it looks pretty silly now.