The episode triggered an enduring public backlash against flu vaccination, embarrassed the federal government and cost the director of the CDC his job.
Warren D. Ward, 48, was in high school when the swine flu threat of 1976 swept the U.S. The Whittier man remembers the episode vividly because a relative died in the 1918 flu pandemic, and the 1976 illness was feared to be a direct descendant of the deadly virus.
“The government wanted everyone to get vaccinated,” Ward said. “But the epidemic never really broke out. It was a threat that never materialized.”
What did materialize were cases of a rare side effect thought to be linked to the shot. The unexpected development cut short the vaccination effort — an unprecedented national campaign — after 10 weeks.
The episode triggered an enduring public backlash against flu vaccination, embarrassed the federal government and cost the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his job.
The pandemic fears of the time and the resulting vaccine controversy may be fueling some of the public’s — and media’s — anxiety about the current outbreak, said health officials who recalled the previous event.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Ward said his family discussed the vaccine in 1976 and decided not to get it. If a vaccine is ordered for this latest threat, he said, “I’m not getting it. I felt back then like it was a bunch of baloney.”
The swine flu brush of 1976 — some call it a debacle — holds crucial lessons for the government and health officials who must decide how to react to the new swine flu threat in the days and weeks ahead.
For starters, officials must keep the public informed. They must admit what they know and don’t know. They must have a plan ready should the health threat become dangerous. And they must reassure everyone that there is no need to worry in the meantime.