1976: Fear of a great plague – On the cold afternoon of February 5, 1976, an Army recruit told his drill instructor at Fort Dix that he felt tired and weak but not sick enough to see military medics or skip a big training hike.
Within 24 hours, 19-year-old Pvt. David Lewis of Ashley Falls, Mass., was dead, killed by an influenza not seen since the plague of 1918-19, which took 500,000 American lives and 20 million worldwide.
Two weeks after the recruit’s death, health officials disclosed to America that something called “swine flu” had killed Lewis and hospitalized four of his fellow soldiers at the Army base in Burlington County.
The ominous name of the flu alone was enough to touch off civilian fear of an epidemic. And government doctors knew from tests hastily conducted at Dix after Lewis’ death that 500 soldiers had caught swine flu without falling ill.
Any flu able to reach that many people so fast was capable of becoming another worldwide plague, the doctors warned, raising these questions:
Does America mobilize for mass inoculations in time to have everybody ready for the next flu season? Or should the country wait to see if the new virus would, as they often do, get stronger to hit harder in the second year?
Thus was born what would become known to some medical historians as a fiasco and to others as perhaps the finest hour of America’s public health bureaucracy.
Only young Lewis died from the swine flu itself in 1976. But as the critics are quick to point out, hundreds of Americans were killed or seriously injured by the inoculation the government gave them to stave off the virus.
According to his sister-in-law, John Kent of President Avenue in Lawrence went to his grave in 1997 believing the shot from the government had killed his first wife, Mary, long before her time.
Among other critics are Arthur M. Silverstein, whose book, “Pure Politics and Impure Science,” suggests President Gerald Ford’s desire to win the office on his own, as well as the influence of America’s big drug manufacturers, figured into the decision to immunize all 220 million Americans.
Still, even the partisan who first branded Ford’s program a fiasco, says now that it happened because America’s public health establishment identified what easily could have been a new plague and mobilized to beat it amazingly well.
To understand the fear of the time you have to know something about the plague American soldiers seemed to bring home with them after fighting in Europe during World War I.
It got its name because it was a brand of flu usually found in domestic pigs and wild swine. It was long thought to have come, like so many flus, out of the Chinese farm country, where people and domestic pigs live closely together.
Recent research has shown, however, that the post-WWI flu was brought to Europe by American troops who had been based in the South before they went to war. Medical detectives, still working on the case in the 1990s, determined that a small group of our soldiers took swine flu to Europe and that it spread to the world from there.
How the swine flu got to Fort Dix in 1976 still hasn’t been tracked down. At the time, Dix military doctors knew only that a killer flu had made it to the base and that they were lucky more men hadn’t died or been sickened seriously.
Weeks after Lewis died, doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and other federal public health officials were meeting in Washington, trying to decide if they should recommend the government start a costly program of mass inoculations.
One doc later told the authors of “The Epidemic that Never Was” that he and others in on the meetings realized there was “nothing in this for the CDC except trouble,” especially because a decision had to be made fast to get the immunizations manufactured by the fall.
“…The obvious thing to do was immunize everybody,” the doctor said. “But if we tried to do that … we might have to interrupt a hell of a lot of work on other diseases.”
The doctors knew they faced complaints if the epidemic broke out and vaccines weren’t ready, as well as criticism if they spent millions inoculating people for a plague that didn’t happen.
“As for ‘another 1918,’ 1 didn’t expect that,” the doctor continued in the book. “But who could be sure? It would wreck us. Yet, if there weren’t a pandemic, we’d be charged with wasting public money, crying wolf and causing all the inconvenience for nothing … It was a no-win situation.”
By mid-March, CDC Director Dr. David J. Sencer had lined up most of the medical establishment behind his plan to call on Ford to support a $135 million program of mass inoculation.