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?

One thought on “Boomers Recall Another National Medical Emergency”

Comments are closed.