Swine Flu Flashback

By Kevin Robinson in News on Apr 29, 2009 4:00PM

Yesterday we took a look at the dark side of catastrophe. Today, in the wake of this morning's announcement, we'll take a look at the history how we've dealt with them in the past.

In February of 1976 an Army recruit at Fort Dix fell ill with the Swine Flu and quickly died. Before his death, however, he had passed the virus on to several other soldiers on the base, who were hospitalized. Several weeks later Army doctors discovered that the soldier had passed the illness on to several hundred other recruits, who didn't get sick. They urged President Gerald Ford to mobilize a national Swine Flu vaccination program to prevent an influenza epidemic, fearing a repeat of the outbreak that killed hundreds of thousands of people after WWI. Although hamstrung by delays and public relations problems, by October of that year a national immunization program began, and within weeks nearly a quarter of the nation had been vaccinated.

Unfortunately, around the time that mass vaccinations began, several senior citizens died. While the deaths turned out to not be related to the vaccine, public distrust of the program soared. Of the millions inoculated, the vaccine that was distributed resulted in some people contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neuromuscular disorder that causes paralysis and death in extreme cases. GBS is a rare side effect of influenza vaccines. While the 1976 campaign to vaccinate against Swine Flu is seen as a fiasco, it's also a case study in how public health officials respond to potentially catastrophic infections. The National Influenza Immunization Program was halted in December of 1976. Baxter Healthcare may be called upon to help quickly produce a vaccine this time. The Deerfield-based healthcare giant has invested in technology to produce vaccines using lab-grown cells, which is faster than the more conventional method of using chicken eggs.

While the government is not yet taking extreme steps to deal with the Swine Flu (the President said it's "obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it's not a cause for alarm,") it is important to take such outbreaks seriously. In fact, following the simple steps outlined by the Centers for Disease Control will help prevent the spread of the illness (and all those other nasty bugs) greatly. And Swine Flu has responded well to treatment.