1976: Fear of a great plague
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
On the cold afternoon of February 5, 1976, an Army recruit told his
drill instructor at Fort Dix that he felt tired and weak but not sick
enough to see military medics or skip a big training hike.
Within 24 hours, 19-year-old Pvt. David Lewis of Ashley Falls, Mass.,
was dead, killed by an influenza not seen since the plague of
1918-19, which took 500,000 American lives and 20 million worldwide.
Two weeks after the recruit's death, health officials disclosed to
America that something called "swine flu" had killed Lewis and
hospitalized four of his fellow soldiers at the Army base in Burlington County.
The ominous name of the flu alone was enough to touch off civilian
fear of an epidemic. And government doctors knew from tests hastily
conducted at Dix after Lewis' death that 500 soldiers had caught
swine flu without falling ill.
Any flu able to reach that many people so fast was capable of
becoming another worldwide plague, the doctors warned, raising these questions:
Does America mobilize for mass inoculations in time to have everybody
ready for the next flu season? Or should the country wait to see if
the new virus would, as they often do, get stronger to hit harder in
the second year?
Thus was born what would become known to some medical historians as a
fiasco and to others as perhaps the finest hour of America's public
Only young Lewis died from the swine flu itself in 1976. But as the
critics are quick to point out, hundreds of Americans were killed or
seriously injured by the inoculation the government gave them to
stave off the virus.
According to his sister-in-law, John Kent of President Avenue in
Lawrence went to his grave in 1997 believing the shot from the
government had killed his first wife, Mary, long before her time.
Among other critics are Arthur M. Silverstein, whose book, "Pure
Politics and Impure Science," suggests President Gerald Ford's desire
to win the office on his own, as well as the influence of America's
big drug manufacturers, figured into the decision to immunize all 220
Still, even the partisan who first branded Ford's program a fiasco,
says now that it happened because America's public health
establishment identified what easily could have been a new plague and
mobilized to beat it amazingly well.
To understand the fear of the time you have to know something about
the plague American soldiers seemed to bring home with them after
fighting in Europe during World War I.
The Great Plague, as it came to be called, rivaled the horrid Black
Death of medieval times in its ability to strike suddenly and take
lives swiftly. In addition to the half million in America, it killed
20 million people around the world.
It got its name because it was a brand of flu usually found in
domestic pigs and wild swine. It was long thought to have come, like
so many flus, out of the Chinese farm country, where people and
domestic pigs live closely together.
Recent research has shown, however, that the post-WWI flu was brought
to Europe by American troops who had been based in the South before
they went to war. Medical detectives, still working on the case in
the 1990s, determined that a small group of our soldiers took swine
flu to Europe and that it spread to the world from there.
How the swine flu got to Fort Dix in 1976 still hasn't been tracked
down. At the time, Dix military doctors knew only that a killer flu
had made it to the base and that they were lucky more men hadn't died
or been sickened seriously.
Weeks after Lewis died, doctors from the Centers for Disease Control
and other federal public health officials were meeting in Washington,
trying to decide if they should recommend the government start a
costly program of mass inoculations.
One doc later told the authors of "The Epidemic that Never Was" that
he and others in on the meetings realized there was "nothing in this
for the CDC except trouble," especially because a decision had to be
made fast to get the immunizations manufactured by the fall.
"...The obvious thing to do was immunize everybody," the doctor said.
"But if we tried to do that ... we might have to interrupt a hell of
a lot of work on other diseases."
The doctors knew they faced complaints if the epidemic broke out and
vaccines weren't ready, as well as criticism if they spent millions
inoculating people for a plague that didn't happen.
"As for 'another 1918,' 1 didn't expect that," the doctor continued
in the book. "But who could be sure? It would wreck us. Yet, if there
weren't a pandemic, we'd be charged with wasting public money, crying
wolf and causing all the inconvenience for nothing ... It was a
By mid-March, CDC Director Dr. David J. Sencer had lined up most of
the medical establishment behind his plan to call on Ford to support
a $135 million program of mass inoculation.
On March 24, one day after a surprise loss to Ronald Reagan in the
North Carolina Republican presidential primary, Ford decided to make
the announcement to the American public.
Congress still had to appropriate the money, of course, and that
wasn't going to be easy. Even before official congressional
consideration of the plan was taken up, there were forces arguing against it.
Another big hurdle was the drug makers, who were insisting the
government take liability for any harmful side effects from the
vaccine. During congressional hearings in the spring and early
summer, lawmakers heard some naysayers who noted that the swine flu
of last winter never got beyond Dix and that only one death had been reported.
The president and his experts prevailed, however, and on Aug. 12
Congress put up the money to get the job done. The mighty task was
put into the hands of a charismatic 33-year-old physician for the
Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Dr. W. Delano
Meriwether, a world-class sprinter who still competed in track meets.
Now he was in a race for life, or so he thought. Meriwether was given
until the end of the year to get all 220 million Americans inoculated
against swine flu.
By Oct. 1, the makers had the serums ready and America's public
health bureaucracy had lined up thousands of doctors, nurses and
paramedics to give out the shots at medical centers, schools and
firehouses across the nation.
Jim Florio, then an ambitious rookie Democratic congressman
supporting Jimmy Carter for president, didn't use the situation to
take a shot at Ford. He lined up and was the first Jersey resident to
take the inoculation.
Within days, however, several people who had taken the shot fell
seriously ill. On Oct. 12, three elderly people in the Pittsburgh
area suffered heart attacks and died within hours of getting the
shot, which led to suspension of the program in Pennsylvania.
Jersey pressed on with inoculations, however. Through the fall, even
as more bad reports about the side effects of the vaccine came out,
thousands of mostly older people in Greater Trenton lined up outside
health centers, schools and firehouses to get the shot, sometimes
waiting for an hour.
One of them was Lawrence's Mary Kent, a 45-year-old mother of two
teenage boys who couldn't tie the ribbons on Christmas presents only
days after she got her shot at the Trenton War Memorial in early December.
On Dec. 16, increasingly concerned about reports of the vaccine
touching off neurological problems, especially rare Guillain-Barre
syndrome, the government suspended the program, having inoculated 40
million people for a flu that never came.
By year's end, Jack Kent knew his wife was seriously ill and started
reading all about the side effects of the president's flu
inoculation, especially nerve problems like those his wife was experiencing.
Even before Mary Kent died an invalid at age 51 in January 1982, Kent
had joined the hundreds of Americans who filed suit against the
government on behalf of children left without a parent due to fatal
side effects from the swine flu vaccine.
Kent's sister-in-law, also named Mary Kent, recalled the other day
that Jack Kent died in 1997 still angrily blaming the government for
giving his wife Guillian-Barre, leading to her death.
The swine flu case of 1976 forever reduced confidence in public
health pronouncements from the government and helped foster cynicism
about federal policy makers that continues to this day.
Citing the swine flu fiasco, for instance, one scholar recently
authored a report suggesting the threat of AIDS has been similarly overblown.
Yet Joseph Califano, one of the earliest to use the word "fiasco" in
describing the swine flu affair, came to the conclusion that it all
couldn't have been avoided. Califano, whom President Carter appointed
Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare after beating Ford in the
November election, said the doctors had no choice but to err on the
side of the caution.
In "The Epidemic That Never Was," Califano said that faced with the
threat of another killer plague with the potential to end millions of
lives, the doctors were right to seek an inoculation program
It's amazing how little we seem to learn. Doctors seem to have a short memory - and we seem to be over-reacting to swine flu in India in 2009, just like the US did in
1976 ! Will we end up making the same mistakes and wasting a lot of time, money and energy ?