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 Accepted Normal … At Least for Body Temperature

The Boomer Generation was known for creating its own way and not accepting the norms that had existed in earlier generations. That, of course, is a generalization that is not entirely true, as boomer opinions on what was “normal” was as diverse as boomers themselves. However, one thing people agreed on without argument was that a “normal” body temperature was 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Some things were just accepted at face value.

The idea that we had a common normal body temperature came from Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich, a German doctor, in 1851. Taking the armpit temperature of 25,000 patients, he deduced that 98.6 was the average. The world has been deferring to his results ever since; well, until recently, anyway. At least since the 1970s it has been known by the medical profession that a normal, resting body temperature varies from person to person. They also had long discovered that body temperatures are different for men and women. Therefore, normal body temperature should be interpreted as a range rather than an absolute … sort of like the Boomer Generation.

Now comes word from a study by Stanford University that since the 19th Century, our body temperature has been decreasing to the point that a person registering a normal 98.6 degrees one hundred and fifty years ago would now have a normal temperature shift of about a degree and a half less today. Their study took records of more than 89,000 Civil War soldiers as a base line. In a 2014 study, researchers had previously found that our body temperature has decreased since 1970. The Stanford research suggests that data from the 2014 study was consistent with their findings.

Many factors may have to contributed this change in body temperature, and boomers benefited from all of them. Most notably among these factors are that we have vastly changed our environment with heat and air conditioning, as well as developing warmer clothing — and, perhaps key among possible reasons, modern medicine has decreased incidents of common infections and inflammations, the chief cause of fevers. Others point to a more sedentary lifestyle, diet and weight gain as contributing factors.

Conversely, a fever was, and still is, by much of the medical profession, considered to occur when body temperature has topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This, too, has been updated to a range today. The importance of establishing a fever threshold is that an increase in body temperature has long been held as an indicator of health. That is why every doctor visit begins with a check of temperature.

None of any possible controversies over temperature ranges mattered in the days of boomers. As such, the “normal” body temperature “fact” made its way into pop culture. From the 1950s to the 1970s, boomers heard songs make reference to body temperature.

98.6, Keith, 1967
In 1967, Tony Powers and George Fischoff wrote the song, 98.6. It was performed by Barry James Keefer — known as Keith on record. The Tokens provided backup vocals, and the single reached number seven on the Billboard charts. It became Keith’s biggest hit. Later, Keith became the vocalist for Frank Zappa’s band for a couple of years. How is that for baby-boomer normal?

The song uses 98.6 to make a statement on normalcy. The lyrics state, Hey 98.6 it’s good to have you back again. In other words, things are back to normal in his relationship. The temperature norm is a given.

Fever, Peggy Lee, 1958
Written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell in 1956, the first recording of the song that year was by Little Willie John. It peaked at number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. Peggy Lee released her version in 1958, reaching number eight on Billboard’s Hot 100. It became her signature song.

Now you’ve listened to my story
Here’s the point that I have made
Chicks were born to give you fever
Be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade

The song, sung from a female point of view by Peggy Lee, has her speaking to a man about the effect he has on her body temperature, but concludes with telling him he can catch the fever from her as well.

Burning Love, Elvis Presley, 1972
Written by Dennis Linde, the original recording was released by Arthur Alexander in 1972. That same year, Elvis picked it up at the urging of his manager, with Linde playing the opening guitar riffs himself. It became Elvis’ last Top 10 hit.

Ooh, ooh, ooh
I feel my temperature rising
Help me, I’m flaming
I must be a hundred and nine

The song, like Fever, uses an increase in temperature as an indicator of a flaming-hot love. This time, though, a specific temperature — and a high one at that — is mentioned.

Hot Blooded, Foreigner, 1978
Written by Lou Gramm and Mick Jones of the band, Foreigner, it was released in 1972.

Well, I’m hot blooded, check it and see
I got a fever of a hundred and three

Again, a song cites body temperature, and again, in a fever mode. Like the songs before it, this increase in fever-level temperature is discussed as a good thing, an indicator not of ill health but of high passion. It was a big hit for them, though of little interest to Mister Boomer.

When Mister Boomer was six years old, body temperature became a serious matter when he ran an extraordinarily high fever. By nightfall, his parents were so concerned that he was rushed to a hospital emergency room. There, his young body was literally packed with ice to lower his body temperature. Once he had returned to an acceptable level, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with tonsillitis. The next morning, he had his tonsils removed. For Mister Boomer, this episode of abnormal body temperature marked the first time he would spend the night without his parents. He remembers staying awake most of the night, staring out his hospital window, as wild rabbits hopped in and out of the hospital lights at the far edge of the parking lot. The next afternoon, tonsils removed and body temperature restored, he was taken home.

How about you, boomers? Do you have a person connection story to normal body temperature in your past history?