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The Fiasco of the 1976 ‘Swine Flu Affair’

In early 1976, several soldiers at Fort Dix came down with an illness that was identified as a novel swine flu. Testing showed 200 recruits carried the virus. The US government swung into action, and President Gerald Ford announced that a vaccine would be developed by fall. And it was. But the program became mired in controversy, scaring Americans away from the needle. When the vaccine was made available in Pittsburgh, three people who got it died of heart attacks.  

The deaths in Pittsburgh would be the start. While there was no causal evidence linking these deaths to the vaccine, they triggered many people to come forward claiming evidence of ill health, falsely blaming the inoculation. Nine states shut down their programmes.

With such a high-profile roll-out, closely attached to the White House, many journalists unused to covering science reported only what they saw and heard from the public, without interrogating whether it was linked. Tabloid journalists gave few column inches to epidemiological nuance. What they should have looked for was “excess mortality” – deaths that would not have happened otherwise – but the daily emerging tales of unexplained heart attacks, distraught nurses, and political failure won more attention.

Was the project worth it? At least we -scientists and journalists, that is- learned a few things from the experience. Read the story of the 1976 swine flu vaccine program at BBC Future.  -via Damn Interesting


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