Image from the 1976 vaccination programme

The 1976 swine flu outbreak

The peculiar pandemic that never was

On 5 February 1976 Private David Lewis at Fort Dix barracks in New Jersey, USA, began to feel unwell. Within 24 hours he was dead, the victim of a virus that looked alarmingly like the one that caused Spanish flu.

Decisions had to be made fast. Could this be the birth of another pandemic, capable of devastating the US population? With the support of the medical community, in March President Gerald Ford ordered a nationwide vaccination campaign, which Congress approved in August.

By October a new vaccine was ready. Almost immediately there were problems. Three elderly people in the Pittsburgh area suffered heart attacks soon after vaccination. A surge in cases of Guillain–Barré syndrome also raised safety fears. In December the programme was halted, after 40 million doses had been given. No other cases of swine flu were detected.

Rights and wrongs

The story has provoked heated debate. Were the medical establishment and government wrong to run with the programme? Yet if they had done nothing, and a pandemic had taken hold, the effects would have been catastrophic.

Nowadays, decision-making processes are different. More tools are available, for example for surveillance and modelling, and more phased approaches are used, allowing for escalation or fallback as circumstances change.

By stimulating interest in swine flu, the 1976 episode may have had one other legacy. Soon afterwards, a human H1N1 virus reappeared – possibly an accidental laboratory release.

Lead image:

A 1976 New Jersey influenza (swine flu) immunisation campaign.

CDC Social Media/Flickr

References

Questions for discussion

  • Would you have done the same as President Ford? Whose advice would you have listened to?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Influenza special issue’ in October 2009 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Topics:
History, Health, infection and disease
Issue:
Influenza special issue
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development