Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Lessons from the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak (A Reminder from History)

Jet injector immunization, 1976. CDC photo, public domain.
Yesterday I published a story on Medium about vaccinations, triggered by Alex Araz's appearance on Face the Nation this past weekend. The Secretary of Health and Human Services discussed a new program being fast-tracked called Operation Warp Speed, a massive effort to get 300 million people vaccinated by year's end.

At the end of last year I got my first vaccinations since the last time I stepped on a rusty nail, and in the process I learned some things. Even the most touted vaccines have their limitations. (Yesterday's article was titled So We Get A Vaccine, Then What?)

Afterwards I was contacted by a journalist friend whose mother was a public health nurse in 1976 when the Swine Flu outbreak occurred. I was sent a pair of article links that were quite eye-opening.

President Ford takes his turn. Photo: David Hume Kennerly. Public domain.
Very briefly, here is what happened back then. There was a flu outbreak at Fort Dix in New Jersey. As a result of a death, everyone at Fort Dix was tested and it turns out that two had what appeared to be a strain of the Spanish Flu that wiped out over 100 million people worldwide in 1919. There was suddenly a sense of panic and urgency to address this.

Before long it became a political issue as Gerald Ford put pressure on congress to fast-track a vaccination program. Merck and other drug companies balked at the initial pressure to create vaccines because they did not want to be held liable should there be negative ramifications.

Nevertheless, indemnity clauses were created to exempt the the drug companies from lawsuits, and President Ford pushed Congress to approve the program. In order to encourage the masses to get vaccinated the president himself went through with the procedure on national television.

Gagging the Whistleblower
Here are the two stories the journalist sent to me detailing the events of 1976.
The Public Health Legacy of the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak
The 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak

The second of these articles includes information about an FDA researcher who publicly raised concerns about the safety of the vaccine. His fears were not unfounded. As it turns out hundreds of people who took the flu vaccine became paralyzed by the Guillain-Barré syndrome.     

Bruce Dull stated at a flu conference on July 1 that there were no parallels between the 1918 flu pandemic and the current situation. Later that month, J. Anthony Morris, a researcher in the Food and Drug Administration's Bureau of Biologics (BoB), was dismissed for insubordination and went public with findings that cast doubt on the safety of the vaccine.

45 million people were vaccinated before the government reversed course on the mandatory vaccinations for every man, woman and child.

My friend's email adds an interesting dimension to the story, anecdotal but revealing.
My mom spent her career in public health. She was passionate about her career. To her public health was a mission, not just a job. In 2016, two to three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was taking care of my physically failing mother. Her memory was fine and I asked her questions about her career, thinking I might write a book. She was a specialist in maternal and child health, which included vaccinating children before entering school. I recalled a time I was a teenager, and she was called away from her usual work to give vaccinations to the general public at the YMCA. I asked her for more information on that incident. She told me that there was a swine flu scare. The president had asked her to be among the hundreds of public health workers to give vaccinations to the general public.

She stated that she didn't really believe in these particular vaccinations. Shocked, because I knew of my mom's integrity, I asked why she would do this. She said, "Because the president asked me to." I think this is indicative of a simpler time. Even though the nation had just gone through an impeachment, people, no matter what political stripe, still respected their political leaders.

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These stories are instructive on many levels. Today, more than ever, it seems like any statement that anyone makes is turned into a politically driven matter instead of considering that it may come from a good conscience and earnest doubts about a direction things are going.

I myself am not an expert, so am reliant on mediated information to draw conclusions that I can base decisions on. What I do know is that experts are not always reliable. I also know that the higher the stakes, the more challenging it is for whistleblowers to find an ear that will hear their concerns. I am thinking here of the engineers at Morton Thiokol who were concerned about the Space Shuttle Challenger's O-rings on that fateful and tragic day.

Lest anyone missed it, the incidence of Guillain-Barré was four times higher in vaccinated people than in those not receiving the swine flu. This is why the Discover article connects this 1976 incident with the Anti-VAX movement.


"Some of the American public’s hesitance to embrace vaccines — the flu vaccine in particular — can be attributed to the long-lasting effects of a failed 1976 political campaign to mass-vaccinate the public against a strain of the swine flu virus. This government-led campaign was widely viewed as a debacle and put an irreparable dent in future public health initiatives, as well as negatively influenced the public’s perception of both the flu and the flu shot in this country." 

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A maxim that I heard four decades ago rattles in my head as I consider these things. Sincerity is not truth. People can be sincere and also be wrong. Going faster may give the appearance of assurance, but if you go faster the wrong way, it will not get you to the destination you want to arrive at. 

We should take care not to be blind to the lessons of history. 

Disclaimer: I am not here advocating that no efforts be made to find a vaccine. I am (a) pointing out that there may be good reasons for being cautious about rushing the solution, (b) and legitimate reasons for why anti-VAXers have become uncomfortable with mass immunizations. 

Related Links
Who Are Your Experts (This was written as a marketing article, but applies to other situations including this one.)
So We Get A Vaccine. Then What?

1 comment:

LEWagner said...

What is really disconcerting is that the vaccine manufacturers and pushers themselves do not seem to be confident in the safety of the vaccines, and so demanded (and have got) indemnity from paying any possible damages for injury or death that have been and may be caused by them.
Governments (meaning taxpayers) have had to pay those damages.
(Bill Gates specifically mentioned that necessity for indemnity at about 7:50 in his smiling Easter morning interview with the BBC. (17 minutes total) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ie6lRKAdvuY )

"The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA) of 1986 (42 U.S.C. §§ 300aa-1 to 300aa-34) was signed into law by United States President Ronald Reagan as part of a larger health bill on November 14, 1986. NCVIA's purpose was to eliminate the potential financial liability of vaccine manufacturers due to vaccine injury claims[1] in order to ensure a stable market supply of vaccines, and to provide cost-effective arbitration for vaccine injury claims.[2] Under the NCVIA, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) was created to provide a federal no-fault system for compensating vaccine-related injuries or death by establishing a claim procedure involving the United States Court of Federal Claims and special masters.[1][3]"
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Childhood_Vaccine_Injury_Act