Boomers Recall Another National Medical Emergency

It’s difficult for Mister Boomer to drift away from the topic of COVID-19 when the facts of daily life punctuate its presence all around us. Certainly, this crisis presents challenges that the Boomer Generation has never before had to face. In Mister Boomer’s recollection, the worry about being drafted and sent to Vietnam is the only thing that remotely comes close, and that is in many ways, an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Yet, Mister Boomer is deeply interested in how we boomers lived through history, and came out the other side. Toward that end, there was a medical epidemic scare in 1976 that affected most boomers, though in that situation, the crisis did not develop as expected and the level of preparedness and panic was ratcheted down fairly quickly. This expected epidemic was called the Swine Flu (H1N1). Though an exploration of its trajectory and effect on the boomer population in no way compares with the seriousness and severity of the current coronavirus, Mister Boomer finds the study interesting in and of itself and, as part of our shared boomer history, worth relating.

The story began when 230 American soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, contracted a variant of the flu in February of 1976. One soldier died from it. Researchers had not seen this variant of H1N1 in humans since the 1930s, and had believed by the late 1950s that it had mutated enough to no longer be circulating in the human population. Since the original identification of this virus came from an infection in pigs in 1918, the common name for it became swine flu.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reacted to the outbreak with a wait-and-see approach, but in the United States, government officials sounded the alarm. The charge was led by U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, F. David Matthews. He warned that this flu would become an epidemic in the country in the fall of that year. He publicly stated, “The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu.” That epidemic killed 50-100 million people worldwide. If Secretary Matthews was correct, the sky was falling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believed at the time that to avoid an epidemic on this scale, at least 80 percent of the U.S. population would need to be vaccinated.

In early March, President Gerald Ford was informed and he met with a panel of doctors and scientists. He came away from his meeting with the notion that a mass immunization program should be pursued. He made a televised pronouncement and the House Appropriations Committee developed an emergency bill to fund the manufacturing and administering of a vaccine. The National Swine Flu Immunization Program bill was approved by Congress on April 5, and the president signed it.

While the country was immersed in Bicentennial fever that summer, scientists and epidemiologists disagreed on whether this virus was actually linked to the 1918 flu at all, whether an epidemic was imminent, and whether the approach of a nationwide immunization program was wise or premature. Many took the wait-and-see attitude expressed by WHO. With no strains of the virus appearing in other parts of the world, a researcher at the Food and Drug Administration went public in July with reports that cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. He was dismissed for insubordination.

Despite a growing chorus of disagreement, the first flu shots were given at the Indiana State Fair on September 22, 1976. In October, the program went nationwide. It was that month that Mister Boomer drove to the government-appointed community center in a nearby suburb, and stood in line with hundreds of others to get the shot.

When Mister B arrived, he was surprised at the amount of people forming a line out the door and running the length of the building, but things moved quickly. When Mister B got closer to his turn, he could see why: nurses administering the vaccine weren’t using individual needles, but a contraption that looked like it would belong in a Star Trek episode. It was a jet injector, a medical device used in mass immunization programs, and for diabetics to inject insulin without the need for a needle. The gun-like device was pressed against Mister B’s revealed bare arm and the nurse pulled the trigger. The sound of whooshing compressed air was heard as the vaccine was microscopically delivered through the skin. He was quickly ushered out the forward door, like Ralphie was pulled off Santa’s lap in A Christmas Story, before he could get a word in edgewise.

Slightly stunned by the speed of the incident, Mister B walked back to his car, his arm smarting slightly as if he had an injection with a needle. Within a short time, the discomfort passed, and Mister B remembers being impressed with the technology.

In November, Gerald Ford lost the Presidential election to Jimmy Carter. By December, reports in eleven states surfaced of people contracting Guillain-Barre Syndrome presumably as a direct result of the swine flu vaccine. The CDC estimated that the possibility of contracting this chronic muscle weakness condition from getting the swine flu vaccine was four times higher than if the shot were not administered. The program was suspended while an investigation was undertaken, but nationwide vaccinations were never reinstated. Approximately one quarter of the U.S. population (roughly 48 million people) had gotten the vaccine, but the epidemic did not appear as predicted.

To this day, researchers, doctors and historians disagree on whether this program was the cautious and right thing to do, or whether it was ill-informed and premature.

How about you, boomers? Did you get the Swine Flu vaccine in 1976?

Boomers See Climate Change By Their Own Experiences

Watching and reading the reports this week, about the efforts of millions of young people around the globe, marching to persuade their governments to act on climate change, put a hopeful smile on Mister Boomer’s face. After all, we boomers are not novices when it comes to environmental issues, or protests. Unfortunately, though, it was also a little bit of “deja vu all over again” (as Yogi Bera reminded us). Putting all politics aside (well, as much as can possibly be put aside), Mister Boomer can only say he is admittedly a tree-hugger from way back when. Environmental concerns have always been one of his top pet projects, and the reason is directly related to his experiences as a boomer.

It all started because, first of all, Mister B, like almost all boomers he has ever spoken to, spent the vast majority of his time outdoors. That not only gave him an appreciation for blue skies and green trees, but also offered direct contact with nature and wildlife. The fields and creeks where Mister Boomer and the neighborhood children played were teaming with grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, frogs, snakes and birds. Mister Boomer, though fascinated when a neighborhood kid captured something in a jar, always suggested the animal be released back to its natural habitat.

At the same time, Mister Boomer’s father took to heart the Boomer Era idea of family vacations by car to visit National Parks. Before Mister B reached his peak teenage years, his family had visited the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park, not to mention numerous state parks. The effect this had on a young boomer was one of wonderment at the sheer beauty and awesome vastness of Mother Nature.

At the same time that he developed these sensibilities, a young Mister B experienced pollution in his own area. A nearby lake had been the family’s favorite fishing spot and swimming beach for years, until one day they drove up to find the space fenced off. A sign said the lake had been closed because it was no longer safe for humans to swim, boat or fish. Access to the lake remained closed for 10 years.

Mister Boomer has also written about how the steel mills in his area lit the sky up an eerily bright orange each night when manufacturing was in progress. Smokestacks from various factories spewed enough brown clouds of soot into the air that his mother had to shake off the accumulated particles from the sheets she hung on the backyard clothesline before she could fold them and bring them back in the house for their next use.

Years later, when he was on an airplane for the first time, he could see firsthand that the plane flew through a layer of smog on takeoff before breaking through to a beautiful blue sky. That same layer of smog was readily seen from the highest point of the city’s freeway system once Mister B began driving.

It’s been Mister Boomer’s experience that these happenings were not unusual for boomers who were raised near a major metropolitan area. All that was true before the government became actively involved in protecting the public — and the environment — through the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. People tend to forget that it was Richard Nixon, with bipartisan support, who first brought the agency into existence by Executive Order in 1970. The House and Senate later approved its creation. The original idea of the agency was to create an independent organization responsible for establishing guidelines, rules and regulations, and also holding those who violated the rules responsible for cleaning up the environmental messes they were making. The agency issued its first regulation in December of that year, and for the next five years, added about 1500 rules and regulations concerning air, water and land per year.

Rachel Carson’s 1964 book, “Silent Spring,” is often credited with being the moment when public opinion changed about how our resources of air, water and land should be treated by individuals and corporations alike. As a direct result of that book, DDT, the most widely used pesticide in the world at that time, was banned because of its effect on birds — killing them by thinning their shells so they couldn’t reproduce — and its entry into the waters that fed drinking water systems. For decades municipalities as well as private corporations spewed raw sewage and industrial chemicals and waste into rivers and streams. Smokestacks, once thought of as a sign of progress after the Industrial Revolution, began to be seen as source of concern for humans, especially those who lived near factories. Clean water, once taken for granted, was now seen as a right worth fighting for. The environmental movement was born from these sentiments, and many boomers participated in marches of their own in the late sixties and early seventies.

The point Mister Boomer is making is, we’ve been here before, at the edge and looking over a steep fall. Boomers witnessed the stepping back from the edge, and the world was better off for it. Boomers saw many things that once seemed impossible become reality during their early years. And how boomers felt about Mother Nature is laced through the songs of the era.

In his famous speech that challenged the U.S. to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, President Kennedy said that, “… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …” So Mister Boomer says this is another hard nut to crack, but we’ve been there before. Mister B salutes the young people around the globe, and adds his Right On! Groovy! and Sock It to Them! to their cause. That doesn’t sound like politics to Mister B. It sounds like the boomer values which we proclaimed when we were their age: freedom of expression, freedom of expanded opportunities and freedom to shape their own future.

How about you, boomers? How did pollution affect you and your family in your area? Did you take part in environmental protests in your day, boomers?